Light rail options for North Puget Sound far from settled

EVERETT — There’s a lot riding on decisions about building a light-rail system from Lynnwood to Everett. And beyond that, there’s a long journey ahead.

New designs released this month show how Sound Transit’s Link trains might reach the heart of Snohomish County, in 15 to 25 years.

There are trade-offs.

A route that would reach Paine Field — a must-have for Snohomish County’s elected leaders — would come at significant cost and would lengthen commute times. That could complicate talks as Sound Transit board members try to balance the northern reaches of the system with proposed additions in Pierce County, the Eastside, Ballard and West Seattle.

Proposed tunnels under downtown Seattle could eat up billions of dollars, but also might make the entire system run more smoothly. Adding costs to create a better system also might mean pushing out the timeline an extra five or 10 years.

“Obviously, we’re going to have to negotiate a settlement on this because not everybody is going to get everything they want,” Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said.

Decisions about light-rail routes will help the Sound Transit board craft a tax measure known as ST3 for the November 2016 election. The board expects to release more details in March and draft the ballot measure by June.

Specific routes, property acquisitions and better cost estimates for future expansion will be years in the making, if voters approve.

The agency is currently building out Sound Transit 2, which passed in 2008. It should bring rail to Northgate by 2021, and to Lynnwood and the Eastside by 2023.

Costs, trade-offs

Concepts presented by Sound Transit staff at a Dec. 4 workshop show the dilemmas for the 18-member board.

Reaching the southwest Everett industrial center around Paine Field and the Boeing Co. factory would cost nearly $2 billion more than going straight up I-5, planners estimate. Costs are pegged at up to $5 billion for that option, compared to a maximum of $3.1 billion along the I-5 corridor.

For Stephanson, it’s unacceptable to build any route that bypasses the state’s largest job center.

Others are on the same page. The three Sound Transit board members from Snohomish County issued a statement with Stephanson and County Executive-elect Dave Somers after the workshop.

“We think it’s important to build the right system, as opposed to the cheapest system,” said Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling, who serves on the board.

A Paine Field route also would make for longer trips to downtown Everett than following I-5 — up to 13 minutes longer, if Sound Transit planners are on the mark.

A one-way Everett-to-Seattle morning commute by light rail would take an average of 53 minutes if that future route were to head straight down I-5. That would grow to 66 minutes if the route passes through the industrial area around Paine Field.

By contrast, a person driving him or herself needed an average of 51 minutes to go from Everett to Seattle on I-5 during the morning commute in 2014, the state Department of Transportation reported. The trip took an average of 68 minutes by bus.

For elected leaders in Snohomish County, the added time was insignificant compared to the need of getting light rail to the Paine Field area.

Light rail is “a lot more reliable than the interstate system, so I’m not worried about adding a small amount of time,” said Everett City Councilman Paul Roberts, the Sound Transit board’s vice chairman.

Roberts also believes the I-5 route provides few options for transit-oriented development north of 128th Street.

There’s a middle option. It would branch off the freeway at 128th Street, like the Paine Field route, but follow Highway 99 and Evergreen Way before cutting over to Everett Station.

It could shave about four minutes off travel time and save perhaps a half-billion dollars, compared to serving the Paine Field industrial area. To Stephanson, that route won’t work because it fails to get close enough to aerospace jobs and would reach an area already served by Community Transit Swift buses. It also could cut through the lots at Evergreen Way car dealerships.

Paine Field doesn’t dramatically change ridership, at least according to the best guesses of Sound Transit planners.

Up to 58,000 riders would use light-rail trains through the Paine Field industrial area, Sound Transit estimates. That compares to a high-end estimate of 56,000 daily riders for the I-5 route and 54,000 for Highway 99.

A 2.1-mile line from Everett Station to the area around Everett Community College is treated separately in new plans. It would cost up to $764 million and carry a maximum of 4,000 riders daily.

The bigger picture

Leaders in Snohomish County realize they’ll have to make compromises, given what’s on the drawing board for other areas. Sound Transit’s district extends through much of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

A successful ballot measure will have to win over Seattle voters.

“The thing that’s so intriguing about this is that we in Snohomish County need King County and Pierce County voters as much as they need us,” Stephanson said.

A Ballard line might cost less than $2 billion, or more than $5 billion, depending on the route. The main variable in the price is pursuing a less-expensive design at street level versus spending more to punch another tunnel under downtown Seattle. The less-expensive version might carry up to 50,000 riders on an average work day; the costlier one up to 133,000.

A West Seattle leg would include elevated tracks and a tunnel into downtown at a cost of up to $2 billion. Daily ridership estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000 for competing designs.

On the Eastside, a segment from the Overlake neighborhood to downtown Redmond would cost an estimated $1.1 billion to carry up to 10,000 riders on an average day.

A segment from Kirkland’s Totem Lake neighborhood to Issaquah could cost nearly $3.4 billion and carry up to 15,000 people per day.

A 15-mile leg from the Kent-Des Moines area to the Tacoma Dome is estimated to attract up to 69,000 riders per day and cost a maximum of more than $4 billion.

How to pay?

To pay for ST3, the Sound Transit Board is considering a mix of property, sales and motor-vehicle excises taxes that are estimated to cost the average area resident an extra $200 per year, about $17 per month.

The taxes would generate an estimated $15 billion over 15 years, with another $11 billion coming from grants, bonds, fares and existing taxes. If completed on schedule, that would get light rail to Everett by 2036.

It’s unclear whether the measure would provide enough cash, though.

“I never thought we could really do what we could need to do with a 15-year package,” said Roberts, the Everett councilman. “I think we need to go to 20.”

Over 20 years, the budget would rise to $30 billion. Over 25 years, it could reach $48 billion.

Costs for the project are estimated 2014 dollars and are bound to rise with inflation.

Earling is an original board member from the early 1990s and is quick to point out that the original vision for light rail included Everett as a key destination, along with Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma. The agency needs to keep that promise, he said.

“It’s our duty, as a board, to stick to that commitment from many years ago,” Earling said. “My commitment is to finish the spine.”

An initial measure failed at the ballot in 1995. Voters approved a scaled-back plan known as Sound Move in 1996, agreeing to build out the rail and bus system in phases. Former Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel led the Sound Transit board when it crafted the successful measure.

Giving people up north in Snohomish County a stake in the process was crucial to winning the votes to pass the original package. Shorting the community on the light rail system would run counter to why Sound Transit was formed in the first place, Drewel said.

“This was a regional effort to build a core system for the central Puget Sound area,” he said.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

Twitter: @NWhaglund.

More information

Staff from Sound Transit have drawn up concepts for future Link light-rail routes to Everett and other destinations.

The information is being used to formulate a ballot proposal for November 2016. More details are due out in March.

Find more, including a library of documents, at www.soundtransit3.org.

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