Large-scale public works projects rarely come in on schedule and under budget, thanks to unexpected costs and complications.
So, no, few were likely shocked by the news, first reported by The Herald in January, that the expected price tag for ST3 — Sound Transit’s extension of its light rail system to connect Snohomish, King and Pierce counties — had grown by an estimated $11.5 billion, forcing the system’s three-county board of public officials to begin considering ways to economize, delay projects, find additional sources of funding or devise a mix of all three options.
Events don’t come much more unforeseen than pandemics, and covid-19’s impacts on the region’s economy and its hit to tax revenue for the project account for a little more than half of the shortfall. The rest is the result of rising property values making land acquisition for the line and stations more expensive, in addition to construction site challenges and requests for project upgrades.
What that means for Snohomish County and Everett — the farthest point north on the “spine” originally envisioned to connect it with Seattle and Tacoma — is that Link light rail’s arrival here could be pushed out even further than the expected date of 2036.
And that could be the least of the sacrifices.
Sound Transit is hiring a consultant to review cost and revenue projections and other factors as its staff and officials begin work to address the shortfall, with public review expected in April and board decisions by July on how ST3 plans will change.
Snohomish County’s Sound Transit board members, three of the 18 on the panel, in a recent conversation with The Herald Editorial Board, said they recognize the need to adapt to current budget constraints, yet there remains concern — fed by past struggles to recognize Everett’s place in completing the regional system first proposed in the mid-1990s — that the county and Everett could again be left to shoulder most of the burden in accepting changes.
Finishing that spine for a regional system has to be the priority, said Snohomish Count Executive Dave Somers, who represents the county alongside Everett City Council member Paul Roberts and Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith.
“One of my concerns is that parts of the system that are farther out on the schedule could get short-changed again,” Somers said. “We don’t need a King County-centric system; we need to tie the region together.”
Smith, who is watching with the rest of Lynnwood as columns for elevated sections of the line are now rising near her city, agrees. Lynnwood’s City Center, part of ST2’s slate of projects, is on schedule to see light rail service by 2024. More than the promise of clean and efficient transit, the project also has been part of what has spurred transit-oriented residential and commercial development in Lynnwood.
“We’ve had 1,000 (residential units) built in the last two years,” she said.
But the connection to Lynnwood isn’t enough on its own.
“That’s going to bring a lot of positive changes; we know that. But it won’t be complete for the whole system if we can’t get to Everett and Paine Field,” Smith said.
Two possible cuts to ST3 are major concerns for Somers, Smith and Roberts. One would eliminate Everett’s Sounder rail service, which connects Everett Station to Seattle. The other proposal would eliminate Link’s connection to the manufacturing jobs center at Paine Field, instead skipping it and its thousands of workers as it makes its way north.
The Sounder rail service is necessary for serving commuters between now and 2036, Somers said. “And not going out to our job center, to me, is a no-go,” Somers said.
Instead, Somers and Roberts have said previously, they are open to phasing in parts of the line, completing the line near Paine Field before its arrival at Everett Station. Previously, when local officials backed the 2016 vote on ST3, they insisted on reaching all of Everett at the same time.
“We’re going to be open to looking at how to rearrange things,” Somers said. “But I’m not interested in chopping out our projects to pay for somebody else’s bells and whistles.”
The “bells and whistles” include projects proposed in Seattle to build portions of lines and stations underground and capping a landfill near Kent for construction of a maintenance center.
Service to and from Paine Field, Roberts said, the largest manufacturing base in the state, must be preserved. Again, it’s about the jobs — and the commuters — there.
“Paine Field makes sense for the very reasons we decided to build the Sound Transit system,” Roberts said. “Once you get north of 128th, there isn’t much in the way of population on the east side of I-5; there’s a ravine and a river.”
In addition to the common sense of sending a transit system where the commuters are, there are issues of climate change and socio-economic equity that Sound Transit’s board must consider.
“We need to ensure that ST3’s investments are spread equitably along the line and not merely benefiting only the wealthiest parts of our region,” Smith said. “Equity has to be a key part of any realignment decisions.”
Along with reducing traffic congestion on I-5, I-405 and other regional highways, the intention of building light rail, Roberts said, has been to get people out of their single-occupancy vehicles and into a clean and efficient transit system.
“The way to de-carbonize your transportation system is to build a system that goes where people are,” Roberts said. “It’s not more complicated than that.”
Snohomish County’s local representatives on the Sound Transit board say their fellow board members are receptive to their concerns, even as they work on their own communities’ needs. Supporters of Seattle-oriented add-ons to the Link system may now be more open to finding separate funding for certain projects. One group, calling itself Seattle Subway is proposing new tax revenue sources — affecting Seattle’s residents only — that could offset the costs of some Seattle upgrades.
Communities within the Sound Transit district — which connects the three counties’ population centers — and the 18 elected officials they represent will need to focus their attention again on why the system is being built: a spine that connects the three counties, north to south, and moves commuters from their homes to jobs, schools and their everyday lives. That spine will deliver that service equitably and with the best opportunity to limit greenhouse gases from our region’s transportation system.
And ensuring that spine gets built will mean Sound Transit’s board members may need to show some backbone.