Reader Brant asked us to respond to the No Campaign’s argument that Sound Transit has come up short on the promises made for Sound Move in 1996.

To a large extent, it’s fair to chastize Sound Transit as an organization for the failures it has experienced over its lifetime.  Voters were promised one thing, and thanks to several years of epic mismanagement, they’re getting the completion of that package quite a bit later than originally planned.

There are two basic points here, though: (1) those failures are not the whole picture; and (2) they’re essentially irrelevant to our current situation.

It’s telling that their litany of light rail shortcuts totally ignores the other giant operations that Sound Transit is involved in.  The agency has operated an extensive bus system and two commuter rail lines for years, in addition to a short light rail line in Tacoma.  They carry 61,000 passengers per day and free up scarce local transit agency resources for local service.

Furthermore, your Sound Move tax dollars have poured into infrastructure projects all over the region. Freeway HOV ramps and parking garages aren’t as dramatic as light rail, but they’re important contributions that commuters use every day.

The No Campaign has a strong point that some elements of LINK light rail will be delayed up to 10 years, but as usual, they over-reach and make patently misleading claims.  First of all, it’s simply bizarre to use a 2020 ridership figure that doesn’t include the University LINK segment, which will open in 2016.  I don’t have 2020 figures handy, but in 2030 that should boost daily ridership to at least 124,000 per day, in line with the promised 127,600.  It’s clearly a lot more than the 45,000 the No Campaign came up with.  It’s also important to note that these are conservative ridership estimates, because the Federal Transit Administration doesn’t allow you to assume that any upzoning occurs around the stations.  Since that has already happened, and gas is three times as expensive now as when these numbers were calculated, it’s safe to say we’ll beat them.

The number of cars per train is limited to four.  Sound Move promised four; LINK will open with two-car trains for no other reason but that it’s what’s sufficient for initial demand.  There’s no technical reason they can’t go to four car trains if ridership exceeds projections.

Why are the agency’s early failures irrelevant to the future?  There was a thorough house-cleaning in 2001, where the agency got new leadership and set a new schedule, one to which it has remained on-time and under-budget in spite of various difficulties with contractors and skyrocketing commodity costs.  It’s this new, revamped agency that we’re entrusting with the next phase of development, one that has passed numerous recent audits with flying colors.

This record is even more impressive when you consider the alternative.  If not Sound Transit, then who?  There’s no one else with the charter to build a regional system.  There’s no reason to believe that a new agency will somehow avoid the colossal early mistakes of the Seattle Monorail Project and Sound Transit itself.  Our choice is between an agency that has made its mistakes and learned from them, and a new entity that gets a chance to make them all over again.

7 Replies to “Sound Move and Proposition 1”

  1. Thanks for spelling it out so clearly, Martin. The anti’s want voters to assume the people in charge now at ST are the same ones who messed up the initial years on the light rail project. Somehow those people have been resurrected and replaced (“body snatchers” anyone?) the new staff and consultants who corrected things in 2001 and who have held to that schedule and budget for 7 full years.

    I don’t think the voters will be so naive.

  2. The lessons from the early times at ST, and with the monorail to a lesser extent – have two important lessons:

    1) Building an agency from scratch is very hard. There are always things you cannot expect to know when you start out the first time. Sound Transit had trouble with capitol projects at the begining because the people running the agency had never run an agency like this before, and no one in the region had an experience with it.

    2) Estimating costs for long-term projects is hard, especially if you are optimistic. Part of the problem ST had is that construction costs rose much faster than sales tax receipts did, another is that property values rose even faster than that. The big dig is another example here.

    1. Re your 2) Andrew, what’s remarkable is that much of that run-up in construction costs occurred AFTER the new light rail program was set in 2001 — and Sound Transit STILL got it right, completing the program on-time and on-budget!

  3. Commenting on something posted above by Martin Duke: “First of all, it’s simply bizarre to use a 2020 ridership figure that doesn’t include the University LINK segment, which will open in 2016. I don’t have 2020 figures handy, but in 2030 that should boost daily ridership to at least 124,000 per day, in line with the promised 127,600. It’s clearly a lot more than the 45,000 the No Campaign came up with.”

    In response, 45,000 is an official Sound Transit number for Seattle light rail daily boardings with Airport Link in full operation, but not including University Link, which is still a few months away from having its necessary Federal grant of $813 million approved that would let construction begin.

    University Link is a massive 3 mile twin-tube subway construction job, and I wouldn’t count its forecast riders as in the bag for 2020 until the scheduled 2016 completion date gets a little closer.

    Speaking of tunnels, the one mile Beacon Hill subway tunnel for the initial light rail segment to the Airport was the most problematic part of Sound Transit’s construction to date, taking longer than expected, and still at risk for making the Initial Segment open a bit later than planned. That tunnel and station aren’t completed yet. Read all about it in the latestLink Progress Report.

    University Link, by the way, is said by Sound Transit to be completely funded whether Prop 1 wins or loses. Thus, bottom line, Link Light Rail from Husky Stadium to the Airport is a done deal! The only thing left is to finish building it. I’m looking forward to riding on it, but from monitoring its progress closely, I’m not exactly sure when that will be.

    For Sound Transit critics, one of the more puzzling aspects of Prop 1 support is the enthusiasm for doubling Sound Transit’s tax take before even one mile of the Seattle light rail funded in 1996 is in revenue operation with customers aboard.

    What is it about raising the sales tax in a recession that is appealing to Mass Transit Now? Especially when “Now” = 2020 for additional light rail openings, according to the Prop 1 map posted by Sound Transit.

    1. Mr. Niles, I have to agree with what The Sierra Club said last night. It’s much better to be fighting for something, to be fighting against it. I’m fighting for the progress of this region, and folks like you are doing everything to put a stop on light rail. And it’s your right, and you probably think you’re doing a good thing.

      But if your response is that ST expansions won’t bring mass transit “now,” how can the complete lack of an alternative plan from any level of government bring us transit any sooner?

      Well, it can’t. Immediate bus expansion, fast relief on Sounder, and a long-term solution to our transportation problems — that’s what Mass Transit Now mean.

    2. I don’t understand all this “oh, no, the FTA grant isn’t FINAL” nonsense. They’ve already delivered the first couple of installments, and then they told us they were increasing it! Get over it already, it’s a really sad ploy.

      Nobody needs to see Link in operation to know how it works. We’ve all been to cities with rail transit.

  4. Ben notes, “‘I don’t understand all this “oh, no, the FTA grant isn’t FINAL’ nonsense. They’ve already delivered the first couple of installments, and then they told us they were increasing it!”

    In response, this statement does not reflect how Federal Transit Administration (FTA) New Starts fixed-guideway construction grants work. Let me help:

    There is a mandatory multi-year qualification process, called, “New Starts.” If you Google into you will find plenty of information on the steps which (a) include authorization for preliminary engineering, and (b) authorization for final design.

    Actual spending on light rail construction is not permitted in a Federalized project like University Link until a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) is issued by FTA, followed by a 60-day Congressional hold during which members of Congress can object for one reason or another, and create delays. After that waiting period, the FFGA contract is signed by both FTA/USDOT and Sound Transit, and ground breaking on construction occurs.

    Sound Transit’s first FFGA was signed in the last hours of the Clinton Administration in January 2001, and then abandoned later that year in the widely-publicized early troubles of Sound Transit. The initially planned first phase from NE 45th to Lander Street was found to be impossible to do under the agreed budget.

    So the available local tax money plus the $500 million Federal amount was switched to cover the easier southern part of the Sound Move light rail promise, which is a much less expensive project for the same money.

    The FFGA for Initial Segment to Tukwila was executed in October 2003, a year later than expected by Sound Transit, which means the budget must have been lush. The Initial Segment FFGA was expanded to cover Airport Link only in the past year or so, which did not require more Federal dollars, but helped ST hold on to all that were awarded for technical reasons.

    Sound Transit’s first FFGA will not be considered complete until Airport Link is in revenue service, scheduled for December 31, 2009.

    There is a generic “Citizens’ Primer” on New Starts available at that appears helpful. It includes a flow chart.

    During the process of qualification for the full $813 million FFGA that University Link requires, the money for which is already authorized by the Congress, some annual portions of that multi-year amount can be appropriated by Congress before the FFGA is awarded, for final design. In the case of University Link, this has happened, I recall twice, which is what Ben is referring to. Senator Patty Murray makes the announcement.

    In addition, Sound Transit can obtain “letters of no prejudice” for certain spending ahead of the FFGA approval. In the present case, ST has received permission to buy the rail cars for University Link, which is a handy thing to do because it merely extends the rail car contract already in place with Kinkisharyo.

    This extension gives ST a bigger fleet in case three or four car trains are needed for the Initial Segment and Airport Extension that will begin to operate in the next year or so, according to ST’s schedule. Under the FFGA for Initial Segment/Airport Link, ST is only authorized to buy 35 rail cars, enough for two-car trains, but not enough for longer trains.

    One very interesting point for those who follow Sound Transit closely, is why the FTA has not issued the Full Funding Grant Agreement for University Link BEFORE the Prop 1 election rather than waiting until after the election.

    The basic reason is that Sound Transit has not gone through all of the qualification steps required. If you asked FTA, that is what they would say.

    However, these steps can be compressed in certain circumstances through political pressure from powerful U.S. Senators and Representatives.

    One theory on holding back is that the U.S. Government did not want to influence the outcome of our local Prop 1 election. Surely the award of an $813 million Federal grant contract before now would have been a big boost for Mass Transit Yes and Sound Transit that would have created momentum for a Prop 1 victory.

    Another theory is that FTA is waiting until after the election to decide whether or not to actually award the FFGA. After all, the important northern terminus for Central Link is Northgate, not Husky Stadium, and the non-availability of local funding for construction past Husky Stadium casts University Link in a different light that if Prop 1 were approved.

    Still a third theory is that the commitment of $813 billion is very large for a lame duck Presidential administration and an economy going into a recession. Maybe the decision is being punted by the Bush Administration to the next President’s DOT Secretary.

    Finally, it would be entirely reasonable for FTA to hold off on awarding Sound Transit a second FFGA for University Link until the completion and operation of the rail line being constructed with the first FFGA, the one awarded in 2003 for $500 million that is paying for construction of light rail to the Airport.

    Since both the Federal monitoring program (called “project management oversight”) monthly reports AND Sound Transit’s own 2009 proposed budget document consider the on-time completion of Airport Link to be AT HIGH RISK, perhaps the FTA doesn’t want to have any egg on its face awarding a $813 million phase 2 construction grant to Sound Transit until that $500 million first phase is completely and successfully expended.

    My own speculative estimation is that if Prop 1 is approved, the University Link FFGA will be issued by the Bush Administration before it leaves office.

    If Prop 1 is rejected, the FFGA will wait until the Obama administration and also until after Airport Link is operating for customers.

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