Light rail construction in Mountlake Terrace in December. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Light rail construction in Mountlake Terrace in December. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

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Passions escalate as Sound Transit ponders project delays

Directors could decide next month to extend the timeline for expansion, including service to Everett.

SEATTLE — Tensions are rising as leaders of Sound Transit near critical decisions on which projects of a voter-approved expansion are delayed, and for how long, due to a surge in costs.

The Board of Directors has known for more than a year that the Sound Transit 3 plan is unaffordable. They are expected next month to settle on what to do about it.

It could mean hard choices that would put the regional transit authority on a course to delay many projects, including extending Link light rail service to Everett and Tacoma.

On Thursday, during a special meeting of the board, passions ran high as representatives from Snohomish and Pierce counties lobbied to proceed in July — in ways they hope keep those extensions on track — while those from King County pushed to extend discussions until next year.

“If we don’t adopt a plan in July — or soon after — that we agree on and covers all the projects, we will be battling month-to-month on spending decisions on every individual project,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said after the meeting.

Sound Transit’s challenge is no secret.

Revenue collections cratered at the outset of the pandemic but are on the rebound. Soaring prices for real estate, which is needed for right-of-way, plus higher costs for labor, materials and environmental work are driving up the overall tab of ST3 by several billion dollars.

Months ago, the transit agency agreed on core criteria to guide decision-making in what officials have dubbed a realignment process. Those include ridership potential, socioeconomic equity, connecting urban centers, completing the spine from Everett to Tacoma and responding to the climate crisis.

Agency staff presented directors with three potential scenarios Thursday. Each contained delays of two to 10 years for light rail and Sounder train extensions, bus rapid transit service and the building of parking facilities in the system’s three-county service area.

The scenarios, which were for conversation only, all showed light rail service arriving in Everett in 2041, rather than 2036 as set out in the 2016 ballot measure.

Directors didn’t dive into details. Rather, they staked out territory ahead of what could be a boisterous dialogue on July 22.

Somers, Everett City Councilman Paul Roberts and Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith — the county’s three representatives on the board — each argued for acting in July. And they sounded resolved to see ST3 projects completed in Snohomish County as quickly as possible. In previous meetings, the trio stood firm against delaying service into the county.

Roberts stressed that decisions should serve to “move the greatest number of people … and to move those people with the greatest need.”

King County Councilman Joe McDermott, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan each expressed concerns with the pace, and potential outcome, of the process.

Durkan said the board is “barreling” toward a decision that could negatively affect the health of the Puget Sound region for a generation. Directors need to wait until the board has a clearer picture of the financial situation, she said.

“I don’t understand how we can responsibly make decisions” without more information, she said, adding that it seemed her peers’ approach is “to get this damn thing built as soon as possible.”

McDermott questioned the value of including real projects in the scenarios if the board will be making those decisions next month.

“Is it a matter of who can put votes together to figure out what projects go first?” he asked.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier made the case to proceed with decisions next month and stressed they can modify those decisions as circumstances evolve.

“The decisions we are making are significant,” Dammeier said. “Also, the lack of decisions will also be significant. I’m ready to move forward with the difficult decisions.”

The board will continue discussions on realignment at a June 24 meeting.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; @dospueblos

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