We may be hearing “I think I can; I think I can” from The Link Light Rail That Could — regarding Everett’s connection to Sound Transit’s Link system — for even longer than first thought.
Even as proponents of the extension to Everett hoped to find support to finish the northern end of Sound Transit’s Link light rail “spine” earlier than its anticipated 2036 arrival, comes the news that an expected loss in tax revenues — brought on by the regional economy’s downturn during and after the pandemic — may force a slowed schedule for Everett and other ST3 projects. Rather than 16 years from now, the system’s Everett arrival may be pushed out another four years or longer, The Herald’s Janice Podsada reported Sept. 6.
Sound Transit — which draws tax revenue from sales, motor vehicle excise and property taxes from within a special district in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties — has started a review of scheduled ST3 projects in expectation of a loss of $8 billion to $12 billion in that tax revenue over the next two decades. In addition to state and federal grants, the system gets about 53 percent of its funding from district sales tax receipts and another 9 percent from vehicle license fees within the district; the pandemic’s downturn will sap both revenue sources.
Sound Transit’s board and its administration should now take the opportunity arising out of this crisis not just to push projects out but to reconsider how it prioritizes projects approved by voters four years ago with the ST3 ballot measure.
“To say that I’m extremely unhappy would be the most printable words,” Everett City Council member Paul Roberts said Tuesday. Roberts is vice chairman of the 18-member Sound Transit board of directors, representing the county with Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers and Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith.
Covid’s economic impacts are no different than what the state and other local governments are facing as they look to rebuild a regional economy hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, Roberts said.
But Covid-19 could further compound delays for Everett and other outlying areas of the project that have long been baked into Sound Transit’s allocation philosophy. Called “sub-area equity,” various projects within the Link system have been allocated funding and scheduled for completion based in part on the amount of tax revenue generated within the system’s sub-areas.
Snohomish County, as compared to Seattle, generates less overall revenue, so projects here and elsewhere have been pushed out later, which is one reason why Everett was handed its 2036 timetable.
Roberts and others have pushed their fellow board members, even before Covid, to consider a more regional approach that puts a priority on building out the “spine” of the system to Everett, Tacoma and Bellevue, before finishing work on spurs elsewhere in the system, including West Seattle and Ballard.
Rather than further delaying Everett and other outlying portions of the spine, Sound Transit should keep as close to its current schedule for those projects as possible — if not speeding their completion — recognizing the agency’s own role and responsibility in the Puget Sound region’s economic recovery. That work also needs to include planning and design for an operations and maintenance facility located along the line north of Lynnwood.
The full length of the system has to be considered, Roberts said, “if we’re going to remain true to why this agency was created.”
The Link light rail system, from the start, was envisioned — and sold to taxpayers and voters — as a regional transportation solution, not the Seattle-centric system largely built thus far. Everett and the rest of Snohomish County play a significant role in the region’s economy and could play an out-sized part in its recovery if the right infrastructure connections are made.
The pandemic could change some earlier projections, but Snohomish County’s population, now at 822,000 residents, is expected to add another 133,000 people by 2035. Everett and the county, even as Boeing faces market challenges itself from the pandemic, remains home to the state’s largest concentration of manufacturing jobs, especially in aerospace and advanced manufacturing. Everett’s Paine Field, as well as providing a home to much of that manufacturing, now has the added economic driver of regular commercial airline service to much of the West Coast and connecting hubs to the nation and world.
The Link system should connect with those economic engines as soon as is possible, as it must connect with residents, businesses and the commuters now arriving at Everett Station by train, bus, vehicle, bicycle and foot.
Prior to the pandemic, initial planning work for Everett’s Link began this year, with design and engineering to follow in 2025 and construction starting by 2030. Rather than further delay, that train must run on time if not ahead of schedule.
With additional federal funding for critical infrastructure projects a possibility — assuming a change in the White House and perhaps the Senate next year — Sound Transit needs to have shovel-ready projects available to take advantage of that potential funding source. Planning and design for Link’s entire spine should continue so it is ready for that opportunity.
Some inside and outside Sound Transit have floated the proposal that Everett’s portion of Link be completed in sections rather than as a whole, possibly completing the link to Paine Field, before its terminus at Everett Station. That’s not the preference of Roberts and others, but it’s an option that keeping to the current schedule of planning and design would better allow consideration of.
Representation on the Sound Transit board leans heavily toward King County communities, with 10 city and county representatives, compared to four from Pierce County and three from Snohomish. As the board reconsiders the timeline for ST3 projects, all members need to keep in mind the vital economic benefit that a fully regional system — spanning north to south between Everett and Tacoma and east to Bellevue and beyond — can have.
The sooner that commuters can make those links among the three counties the better.