SEATTLE — As Sound Transit leaders confront surging cost estimates of expansion plans, Snohomish County officials are urging against saving money by delaying the extension of light rail to Everett.
The regional transit agency says the tab for Sound Transit 3 projects, including the Everett Link light rail extension, could be $11.5 billion more than when voters approved them in 2016.
Soaring prices for real estate — which is needed for right-of-way — plus higher costs for labor, materials and environmental work are the driving factors. Decreased revenue during the pandemic further complicates the equation, though the agency will receive $460 million in federal aid to soften the blow.
“There’s more project than money. We are going to have to make some hard decisions,” said Everett Councilman Paul Roberts, a vice chairman of the Sound Transit Board of Directors and one of three Snohomish County representatives on the panel.
Those decisions could be far-reaching to ST3. They’re looking at such steps as not building parking facilities or delaying extensions. What concerns the Snohomish County contingent of Roberts, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers and Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith is that Everett — the farthest point north on the “spine” originally envisioned to connect it to Seattle and Tacoma — could see Link light rail arrive after 2036, the date promised to voters.
Months ago, the transit agency board agreed on core criteria to guide their decision-making, including ridership potential, socioeconomic equity, connecting urban centers, completing the spine from Everett to Tacoma and responding to the climate crisis. Earlier this week, Roberts delivered a written proposal to fellow board members arguing that the planned extension to Everett meets the criteria to be a priority.
“Sound Transit is building infrastructure for the next 100 years and beyond,” he wrote. “Sound Transit should complete the initial mission for which it was created, and do so in a manner that recognizes the climate crisis we face, meeting the transportation needs of the greatest number of people in the region as soon as possible.”
Roberts elaborated Thursday after a meeting of the agency’s executive committee.
“This is a regional system. Our job is to help make the case that it is a regional system,” he said. “I think connecting Everett and Tacoma show up really well, and if you’re going to address the climate crisis these (extensions) are the surrogates for it.”
Somers said his staff ranked ST3 projects in each criteria and the links to Everett and Tacoma came out on top.
“I thinks it’s inevitable that all projects could slip by two years, but our goal is to keep Everett as close to that as possible,” he said. “Given that we rank number one on all the criteria, that should be doable.”
When Sound Transit put the tax measure on the ballot in 2016, it came with a nearly $54 billion price tag to build light rail to Everett, Federal Way, Issaquah, Tacoma, Seattle’s Ballard and West Seattle neighborhoods, as well as expanding bus service throughout the taxing district, which spans parts of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
Those estimates were made in 2015, when the median home price in Snohomish County was $359,800. At the end of last year, that price rose to $495,100, according to data from the University of Washington Center for Real Estate Research.
Sound Transit hired a consulting firm to dig into the causes of the soaring cost projections. Its report is due to the full board April 22, ahead of board action on a realignment process that could delay, pare back or reshape ST3 projects.
Board members want to know why the costs are so much higher than envisioned. On Thursday, one of the consultants told the executive committee that much of the increases are “appropriate” for such a large undertaking.
“If you take a step back and look at the big picture with all the pluses and all the minuses, the estimates are appropriate for this kind of design,” said Andrew Kean, of the Triunity consulting team.
Also Thursday, the executive committee considered a staff report on the costs and benefits of providing parking at stations.
It showed ST3 assumes spending $655 million to add 5,125 stalls at six existing and proposed lots. That includes constructing two new garages with 950 spaces total to serve Everett Link, at an estimated $120 million price tag.
Meanwhile, members of the Everett City Council are interested in hearing directly from Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff on the evolving situation. Rogoff is tentatively scheduled to address city leaders April 28.