One might have thought that — considering the delays and cost overruns involved with Seattle’s recently opened Highway 99 tunnel project — its city leaders would want to avoid new discussions about digging holes in which to throw money.
Yet, Seattle officials persuaded enough of their peers on the Sound Transit board of directors Thursday to include study of tunnels as preferred alternatives for certain stretches of the agency’s Sound Transit 3 Link light rail lines into the Emerald City’s Ballard and West Seattle neighborhoods.
The tunnel projects are estimated to add — or worse, subtract from — more than $1 billion of the overall $54 billion cost of the voter-approved ST3 project that is intended to continue the extension of the light rail’s “spines” into Everett, Tacoma and Bellevue.
That $1 billion-plus upgrade — not included in descriptions of the projects that voters considered in approving the ST3 tax package in 2016 — concerns some Sound Transit and other local officials, specifically in Snohomish and Pierce counties, because it has the potential to force delays and cost-cutting changes to the extensions further along the spine. Even without the tunnels for the Ballard and West Seattle spurs, Everett does not expect to see a Link train arriving near Paine Field or at Everett Station before 2036, some 17 years away.
Seattle officials and residents in the two neighborhood see the tunnels as a way to bring light rail to their communities with less disruption and fewer displacements of businesses and residences; one of the tunnels would replace the original plan for a drawbridge across Salmon Bay into Ballard, avoiding delays for ship traffic. Those upgrades’ benefits are understandable, even justifiable, except if they come at the expense of what was envisioned and sold to taxpayers as a regional transportation solution where the spine of the system was supposed to take priority.
While the board approved a resolution that identifies the options for tunnels in the two Seattle communities as the “preferred alternative” as the agency begins work on an environmental impact statement, board representatives from Snohomish and Pierce counties, were able to add language to the resolution that will require proponents of the alternative to identify — with approval from the Sound Transit board — “third-party financing” for the additional costs of the tunnels, financing apart from state and other regional transportation sources that are already allocated or could pay for other lines of the light rail system.
Even with that language, there may yet be a struggle over funding. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, a member of the Sound Transit board, in October didn’t offer details to The Seattle Times as to where funding might be found, “but I want people to understand it’s not going to be only the people of Seattle.”
A comparison of what was spent, and from what sources, on the Highway 99 tunnel provides some context to the availability of “third-party” funding. The state Department of Transportation puts that tunnel’s cost at $3.3 billion, with $2.8 of that from state and federal funding. The Port of Seattle pitched in $267.7 million with another $68.6 million from Seattle sources. Tunnel tolls will provide much of the rest with $200 million.
There’s still unease among the board’s Snohomish County representatives: Everett City Council member Paul Roberts, Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, who helped draft the amendment to require third-party funding be identified.
While that language provides some protection of state and regional transportation funding for the larger regional system, Somers said in a phone interview Friday that resolution may still “grease the skids” for approval of the tunnel options.
“I still worry how the hell we are going to get to Tacoma and Everett,” Earling said during Thursday’s meeting.
Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin, while not a member of the Sound Transit board, shares the concern not just for Everett, but the larger county region. Those who work in and near Seattle, she said Friday, often can’t afford to live there and must live to the south or north, which makes the regional transportation system imperative. A “Seattle-centric” attitude, Franklin said, now puts that equity issue at risk.
Somers, Earling and Roberts have argued consistently to protect and even move up Everett’s 2036 light-rail arrival, to the point of letting go of some of the route upgrades that they and many others would have liked included, such as an extension from Everett Station north to the combined campus of Everett Community College and Washington State University-Everett.
Seattle officials also should consider how the request for a $1 billion upgrade for Ballard and West Seattle will sound to taxpayers throughout the larger Sound Transit taxing district during the upcoming election season.
The ST3 project faces an existential challenge later this year in Initiative 976, Tim Eyman’s latest attempt to deliver $30 car tabs. In doing so, however, the initiative would slash revenue for transportation funding, in particular one funding source for ST3, wiping out $7 billion to complete the regional light rail system that voters have approved.
Voters, Franklin said, need to know that the the light rail investment that they already are paying into will eventually benefit them, that “ST3 is worth fighting for.”
Losing that revenue, Somers said, more than delaying light rail’s arrival in Everett, could mean it might never arrive here.