Rail boosters to Sound Transit: Don’t delay Link expansion

“For too long Everett has paid into the system with minimum benefit,” said transit supporter Brock Howell.

By Mike Lindblom / Seattle Times

SEATTLE — A dozen advocacy groups encouraged Sound Transit leaders Thursday to deliver voter-approved rail and bus extensions faster, instead of accepting project delays as inevitable.

When 2021 began, elected officials on the agency’s governing board were notified of a $12 billion funding shortage to build nine rail extensions and two bus-rapid transit routes promised in the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure in 2016. Inaccuracies in early cost estimates, along with rapid land and construction inflation, played a major role, a consultant’s review found this spring.

The agency declared a self-imposed July 22 deadline to publish new construction schedules, known as a “realignment,” that postpone most opening dates two to 10 years. Doing so would spread costs out to 2045, so tax revenues don’t run low late this decade.

On Thursday, board Chairperson Kent Keel loosened his timetable to set a realignment vote for Aug. 5.

Board member Claudia Balducci, a Metropolitan King County Council member from Bellevue, is working on a counter proposal she said would “keep us on schedule as much as humanly possible.”

The pro-transit coalition says realignment can wait.

For one thing, Sound Transit may learn by late summer how much federal infrastructure money the agency could receive. That might be a $1.9 billion grant increase co-sponsored by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Washington, or higher if the Biden administration coaxes an infrastructure package through Congress.

Keel, who is a University Place City Council member, worked with transit staff to devise a slate of project postponements: Ballard light rail by 2040 instead of the original 2035 ballot promise; the Federal Way-Tacoma extension by 2032 instead of 2030; or Everett Station by 2042 instead of 2036. His plan would kick a host of park-and-ride garages to the 2040s, conserving money to finish the major rail lines.

Transit activists point to last week’s record temperature of 108 degrees as reason to expand the electrically powered train network as an alternative to fossil-fuel powered transportation.

“Sound Transit would be committing a crime against the climate if they move ahead with the proposed plan to delay the rail projects voters approved in 2016,” argued Robert Cruickshank of the Sierra Club.

On the other hand, “when states like Washington take action, regardless of their share of global emissions, they help drive market transformation beyond their borders,” said Vlad Gutman-Britten, state director for Climate Solutions, which wasn’t involved in the advocates’ statement Thursday.

Keel’s version contains a new concept: build an intermediate Snohomish County segment from Lynnwood to southwest Everett along Highway 99, by 2038. Then the final destination in downtown Everett would be pushed to 2042, compared to the ballot promise of a longer Lynnwood-Paine Field-Everett line in 2036.

“For too long Everett has paid into the system with minimum benefit,” said transit supporter Brock Howell, executive director of Everett Station District Alliance. “Another six-year delay to ST3 would not just be another six years without light rail service, it’d be a lost opportunity to grow our economy year-over-year through transit-oriented development, to address housing affordability, and to address climate change.”

Already, a robust economy has boosted tax-revenue predictions, whittling the funding gap to $8 billion, which could settle at $6 billion after federal aid. These figures don’t include extra costs for options such as a West Seattle tunnel, a south-end train base over the toxic Midway Landfill , or a 200-foot-deep International District/Chinatown station.

The realignment, Keel says, is needed to write reliable budgets and to assure the agency keeps its premier credit rating. Any postponed projects would be re-examined yearly to confirm whether delays are still needed, his plan says.

“The transit expansions our voters have approved are critical for the region’s future, and for our planet,” he said at a transit-committee meeting Thursday. “I and every member of the Sound Transit board share the strong desire to complete them as quickly and as humanly possible. At the same time, we have a responsibility to play it straight with our region’s voters, taxpayers and commuters on what is possible under current revenue and cost projections.”

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine have joined Balducci in seeking additional time to find better options.

Durkan gave a glimpse of coming debates. Is it possible, she wondered, to finance light-rail all the way from Alaska Junction in West Seattle to downtown and Smith Cove near Interbay together, instead of waiting until 2038 to tunnel north of Sodo? Otherwise, she said, delays to both rail and ST3’s RapidRide bus improvements will strand travelers in Ballard.

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