Construction workers walk along the underside of Sound Transit’s Link light rail tracks in March 2022 in Lynnwood. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Construction workers walk along the underside of Sound Transit’s Link light rail tracks in March 2022 in Lynnwood. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: What’s needed to get Link light rail on track

Sound Transit needs to streamline its process, while local governments ready for rail and stations.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The timeline to deliver on Sound Transit’s promise to voters to bring the Link light rail system to Snohomish County and its cities of Mountlake Terrace, Lynnwood and Everett can seem like an interminable wait.

Yet, there are some aspects of planning its route and facilities where even a pushed-back schedule might seem to not offer enough time to prepare.

That presents two tracks to the transit agency and local governments.

Track one: Facing a “affordability gap” that has pushed back completion dates for expansion of the planned 116 miles of light-rail routes and stations one to five years — including an arrival date at downtown’s Everett Station of 2041, rather than 2036 first promised in the ST3 ballot measure — Sound Transit’s board of locally elected officials from Snohomish, King and Pierce counties in late 2021 asked for a review by an eight-member panel of outside experts regarding Sound Transit’s process for decision making, planning and work with local governments and contractors.

Even with increased costs for land, materials and labor, and losses in ridership and revenue from the pandemic, the report still sees a way forward to deliver project completion earlier than the latest predictions.

Among the Technical Advisory Group’s recommendations:

Hiring a “megaproject” capital program manager and two deputies, one each to oversee projects outlined in the voter-approved ST2 and ST3 ballot measures;

Clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the agency’s board and staff;

Pushing some decision-making down to the staff level to allow quicker action;

Reducing delays and red tape, in particular for construction contractors;

Resisting local governments’ attempts to add extras on to projects, such as tunnels, streetscaping, wider sidewalks or other amenities; and

Working more closely with the Federal Transit Administration to seek more funding from Congress and shorten the timelines of federal project reviews.

Snohomish County’s representatives on the 18-member Sound Transit board of directors — Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin and Lynnwood Mayor Christine Frizzell — generally see merit in the recommendations and want to see further discussion and consideration by the board and Sound Transit’s chief executive, Julie Timm, who is expected to provide a response next month.

“A lot of the document really rang true for me,” said Somers, in an interview this week.

While hiring more management staff represents additional costs, that recommendation recognizes that Sound Transit has two major responsibilities: running a transit agency while building it out at the same time.

“The idea of bringing someone in to address the management of a very large project,” makes sense, Somers said, “and that’s not a dig at any of the current staff.”

And there is a tendency, Somers said, for the board to get lost in the weeds on some issues and projects, increasing the time demanded of the board and staff and sometimes delaying decisions.

Frizzell agreed that the board and Sound Transit do need to take a hard look at the advisory group’s report, and perhaps go even further. Frizzell, at Thursday’s board meeting, said she floated the idea of returning to the voters for clarification of what they want out of the transit agency, noting that the ST3 ballot issue was approved in 2016 and much has changed since then.

“Maybe it’s time we go beyond mere public comments and go back to the voters to figure things out,” she said, noting that local governments, chief among them Seattle, have been campaigning for and pursuing projects and “betterments” that go beyond the scope originally intended of “building the spine” from Everett to Tacoma.

Track two: That’s not to take away from the necessity for local governments and their communities to weigh in on project planning, especially as alternatives for light rail routes and locations for stations and Operation and Maintenance Facilities (OFM) are considered and selected.

That’s a process now ongoing in both Everett and Lynnwood.

While Link’s arrival in Lynnwood is expected sometime between mid- and late-2024, routes and stations are now being planned for the line’s northern extension toward Everett. Regardless of final decisions, Frizzell said, there will be impacts to businesses, homes and even churches.

The extent of those impacts — perhaps displacement or a track pillar in a parking lot — aren’t yet known.

“We’re trying to make the best decisions as we move along,” she said.

For Everett, the concern is for businesses and residences, specifically as the Link route makes its way to the jobs and apartments in the Paine Field area.

Along with the route and stations, Sound Transit also is looking to locate a maintenance facility in the area, necessary to service and clean the trains and cars and allow better and timelier service. As a draft Environmental Impact Statement is readied for further study, one potential location for the OFM is the current home of Achilles, a manufacturer of plastics used in the automotive, health care and the semiconductor industries.

Franklin, prior to her state of the city address this month, shared concerns that displacing Achilles could mean loss of an important employer and the products it supplies, including materials for dialysis and covid vaccines. There may be few good options, Franklin said, for Achilles to move within Everett.

Somers agreed displacing Achilles is not a preferred option, but none of the three alternatives for the maintenance facility are without trade-offs. Another location, he noted, has wetlands and other environmental concerns that would have costs and difficulties in their mitigation.

“It’s important that we go into this with all alternatives and in the end, trust the process and our ability to make good decisions,” he said.

Laying a fixed rail route in cities that have been growing and changing for more than a century requires full discussion and planning, with a focus on the coming decades.

“What is the impact 20 years down the road, by relocating a facility, by relocating a home, a business? Will people still be able to earn a living, raise a family, have their groups meet together for whatever reason?” Frizzell said. “Change is hard on our society.”

But change will be necessary to deliver a vital transportation link that gets commuters where they want to go, and does so with minimal impact on the environment, businesses and residents.

Sound Transit and its board of directors have work ahead to more efficiently, cost-effectively and timely move on decisions that can restore the promises made to voters on how and when light rail service will be delivered.

At the same time whatever time frame is assured — local governments and their Sound Transit representatives in Snohomish County need to continue their careful consideration of recommendations for Link’s route and its facilities.

Whether the first train’s arrival in Everett is 2037 or 2041, there’s truthfully little time to waste.

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