EVERETT — Hopes for light rail are riding on billions in federal grants to make it to Lynnwood and eventually to Everett.
For big public works projects like the Sound Transit expansion, President Donald Trump’s administration offers tantalizing possibilities — and great uncertainty. On one hand, there’s a promise of a trillion dollars in federal infrastructure investment nationwide. On the other, there’s the inescapable fact that Link light rail is a mass transit project serving a region where voters were as politically unfriendly to Trump as any place in the country.
As with so much else these days, no one’s quite sure what will happen. Some answers are likely to arrive with the president’s budget, expected around the same time as his State of the Union speech at the end of the month.
“It’s still a bit of a wait-and-see. But by the same token, there is so much work that has already been done on these Sound Transit issues,” Rep. Rick Larsen said. “I don’t know why any of the Sound Transit money would be in jeopardy. It’s baked into the budget.”
Billions in grants
Trump on Thursday told the committee’s chairman, U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, “That’s right. We’re going to give you some money for transportation. That’s good. Good territory.”
In practice, it’s unclear what that means.
The plan for building light rail from Northgate to Lynnwood is relying on a federal New Starts grant of more than $1 billion. Construction on that segment is scheduled to break ground next year and to begin service in 2023. The federal dollars are in addition to sales tax, car-tab fees and other revenues. Last year, the Federal Transit Administration authorized Sound Transit to move into the final design phase for that project.
The next phase of northward light-rail expansion will come through the $53.8 billion Sound Transit 3 measure that voters approved in November. The ST3 budget assumes $4.7 billion in funding from federal grants. Light rail would reach Everett by 2036. It also would connect Link service to Tacoma and new destinations on the Eastside and build out a new I-405 bus rapid-transit line.
ST3 spans 25 years. That plan is bound to stretch over multiple presidential administrations.
Sound Transit officials agree with Larsen and see no reason to fret.
“We’ve had very strong success with both Republican and Democrat administrations,” Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said. “The funding for the initial light-rail segments as well as University Link was secured during the Bush Administration. And transportation is strongly linked to economic prosperity. In many ways, it’s a very nonpartisan issue. We’re going to continue that partnership to secure the federal funding we need to keep this region moving.”
Trump and infrastructure
The American Public Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based transportation lobbying group, is urging Trump’s team to stick to a piece of bipartisan legislation that passed in late 2015, promising money for roads, bridges and public transit. The FAST Act — the acronym stands for Fix America’s Surface Transportation — is on track to send more than $3.6 billion in federal highway dollars to Washington state over five years.
“Like everyone else, we are adapting to this new political environment and are preparing for a variety of funding scenarios,” said Andrew Brady, senior government affairs director for the lobbying group. “The fact that President Trump has made such favorable statements about the need to reinvest in our nation’s infrastructure certainly bodes well for public transportation projects around the country.”
Public vs. private funds
One of the scenarios Western Washington’s congressional members are watching is what mix of public and private funds Trump includes in his plan.
Private funding can work great for some public projects, especially ports, Larsen said. But it can short-change rural areas, where there aren’t enough users to make toll roads or tax-increment financing worthwhile.
“You’re going to run into a buzz saw with the Congress and the public, who won’t feel very happy about having to drive on roads that private developers own,” he said. “If the private sector builds the project, they’d want to get their money back and then some.”
Sedro-Woolley and other rural communities, he noted dryly, aren’t likely to attract privately financed projects.
Larsen said he’s looking for much more than light rail in the coming budget. He wants to better position mid-size cities to compete for federal transportation dollars. Locally, that would include Arlington, Bothell, Edmonds, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Mill Creek, Monroe, Mountlake Terrace and Mukilteo.
The congressman also hopes to help secure more funding for Washington’s ferry system, which is the largest in the country, as well as money for bridges and better routes for pedestrians and bicyclists.