With corridor studies for rail from Downtown Seattle to Ballard and extension of Link south to Federal Way both moving forward next year, it looks likely that the Sound Transit board will move to accelerate planning work necessary for development of a Sound Transit 3 (or ST3) package. Yesterday, much of the board met at a workshop to answer three main questions:
- How aggressively should ST push forward planning work such as corridor studies and the Long Range Plan update?
- Should ST continue to focus on the light rail “spine” as their primary goal?
- Should ST engage state level transportation funding and authorization issues?
On the first question, there was a general desire among the board members in attendance for a more aggressive schedule than what ST is currently pursuing. Three planning processes were presented to the board:
- Status Quo – would continue the status quo and take 8-12 years
- Corridor Study – would initiate accelerated corridor planning followed by the Long Range Plan update taking a total of 6-10 years
- Jump Start – would incorporate corridor studies in the Long Range Plan cutting the total planning timeline to 4 years
Many board members felt that the more aggressive planning schedule, the Jump Start, was preferable – including WSDOT chair Paula Hammond, who said she’d like to see ST3 as soon as possible so it can be integrated with WSDOT’s planning. Some board members had reservations about shooting for a 2016 ST3 package and felt that a 2020 package was more realistic. Not only would 2016 be a very tight planning window, but it would also mean that voters in the region would be asked to vote ST3 before Lynnwood Link and East Link construction were clearly visible. The tight planning window could also complicate the process of getting additional funding authority from the state (more on that later).
The second question, should ST’s highest priority be completing the light rail “spine”, was a bit of a confused discussion. Board members from the Snohomish, East King and Pierce subareas appeared to take as a given a continued focus on the spine, but board members from the North and South King subareas were more open to revisiting the question. In North King, this discussion needs to continue, as the North King subarea (primarily Seattle) has already fully funded its portion of the spine.
To expand the currently funded Link system to Everett, Tacoma and Redmond will take billions of dollars. Since taxing must be uniform across the Sound Transit taxing district and funds must be used in the subareas where they are raised, the North King subarea will essentially end up spending all of its money on non-spine projects. For context, the Snohomish, Pierce and South King subareas combined will collect about $5.3 billion from 2012 to 2030 while North King will collect $3.3 billion by itself over the same period. Basically, if an extension of the spine to Everett and Tacoma requires an additional $5.3 billion in revenue, North King would generate some $3.3 billion in revenue to be spent on high capacity transit corridors (or some as yet identified projects).
Mayor McGinn stressed that while Seattle doesn’t plan to “go it alone”, Seattle has a greater appetite and ability to fund high capacity transit than the rest of the region and that needs to be kept in mind.
Implicit in the above discussion was that the present board members see ST3 as another large capital package, not an incremental package that simply extends existing authorization. Existing taxing authority through 2030, if extended by voters, would only be able to support an additional $1.2 billion region-wide. 2008′s ST2, by comparison, was a $17+ billion dollar package, although it will only raise closer to $14 billion now due to the recession.
The board viewed this as a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Sound Transit needs the state to grant additional taxing authority, but many board members felt this was unlikely unless Sound Transit has a clear scope of projects. At the same time, until ST knows how much authority they can ask for, they will have a hard time identifying those projects. Whether they can get authority from the state to ask voters will remain an open question. Either way, the board members present agreed that the best way forward is to accelerate ST3 planning to the middle “Corridor Study” option.
The full Sound Transit board will meet early next year to continue discussing these issues. They will still have time to accelerate to the fastest, “Jump Start” option.