Pioneer Square Station entrance - thanks to Mike Bjork
Pioneer Square Station entrance - thanks to Mike Bjork

Like the rest of our transit agencies and government bodies, Sound Transit also faces some 20% shortfall in sales tax revenue (and a hit to their MVET, as well).

Over the next 15 years, that equates to a drop of $3.1 billion in cumulative revenue for the agency. (By that time, revenue will be long stable again, it doesn’t add anything to look farther ahead.)

Today Sound Transit was kind enough to give Mike Lindblom and me a briefing on what this means for Sound Transit 2 projects, and the resulting news is pretty good: the padding Sound Transit had in ST2 is actually about the same as the revenue shortfall.

Sound Transit will be value-engineering everything to create new padding inside their shrunken revenue – they’re trying to ensure they don’t ride the edge of their budget for the next 15 years. Among other plans for cost savings, they also identified several places where expenditures that were planned to be immediate may not happen immediately – like matching funds provided if an operator wants to build something on the BNSF Eastside track. They’ve gotten unexpected grants lately, interest rates have been low, and bids have come under budget.

The big thing to take away is that Sound Transit showed us an aggressive plan that should keep ST2 projects on schedule. Given the last eight years of project delivery, I’m inclined to believe they can do it.

19 Replies to “The Bomb Shelter Called Sound Transit 2”

  1. All the anti-rail haters are out again on the Seattle Times comments. I really hope that Sound Transit can get light rail done on time or even early.

    1. One commenter claims that “ST and Metro impose a staggeringly high sales tax rate of 1.8% for bus and train service” and that Portland’s TriMet makes do with far less tax revenue.

      I thought that the ST rate was 0.9%? Does Metro add another 0.9% on top of that?

      Either way, that’s still a lot higher than, for example, Utah Transit Authority’s sales tax rate of 0.3%, soon to increase to 0.55% to build three new rail lines, on top of continuing to pay for the existing rail lines and the buses. Utah’s sales tax is of course collected from a smaller population to boot (although UTA didn’t have to bore any tunnels).

      What’s more, UTA increased fares last year when diesel went up, and then reduced fares again when diesel went down, while Metro seems to expect to be able to keep its fare increase even after the spike in fuel prices subsided.

      Is it just lies and statistics, or are we paying more tax in Washington and getting less rail than our neighbors are paying and getting?

      1. UTA serves a lot fewer people with a lot less service. They also receive state money, which we don’t, and they build at grade (without any sort of separation, largely) and almost exclusively in existing right of way.

        We’re paying more tax in Washington (really just in the RTA), but we’re getting a lot more too.

      2. Diesel prices have only subsided temproarily – look for increase to US$5/gallon in the next couple of years, and US$10/gallon or more by 2020.

      3. Land prices are alot cheaper in Salt Lake. It’s not like ST can buy right of way at Utah prices.

      4. UTA also received a lot of money to get the first light rail line open as part of the infrastructure built for the Olympics. They also seem to be extraordinarily good at getting grants from the Feds.

        In Salt Lake itself, the UTA collects a sales tax of 0.69%, it’s in the outlying counties that the tax is lower. Utah also has an income tax, so it wouldn’t surprise me if transit was also funded with income tax funds.

  2. while putting a significant dent in revenues, shouldn’t the recession also lower the cost of the projects? materials and labor should both be cheaper now than when original cost estimates were made.

    1. We’re not building now. Most of the ST2 projects don’t even go to bid until 2015, which is long after this recession is projected to end. So where we’re expecting to be saving for some of these projects, we won’t be able to, and when the projects finally go to bid, the project costs will be high again.

  3. One interesting item in the Seattle Times article is that Sound Transit is considering extending the south line past the airport ahead of schedule. Apparently they have done most of the planning for that part already and if they build it sooner they can benefit from lower bids. Sounds pretty smart to me.

    1. What’s really funny is that no, on the conference call, I asked if that was planned, and Lindblom got confused and thought it was one of the cost cutting measures.

      1. I think it might be one of the cost-cutting measures. S 200th is already at 1/3 design so they could have that extension open soon, and it’ll cost less to build in 2013 than 2020.

  4. one easy place to reduce costs in ST2: cut the number of park-and-ride stalls at Link stations. those funds would attract more riders if used for service any way.

    1. I think they should keep that parking (as much as we don’t like it most people have to drive to the stations), but they should charge a couple dollars a day for it. Parking costs a huge amount to build and maintain, so the users should pay part of the cost for it, just like transit riders pay part of the cost for transit.

      1. Amen. It is crazy to not charge for parking. Like you say, it is a reasonable user fee and it also would encourage other ways of getting to the stations.

      2. A small charge at park n rides would be a good thing. But it needs to be small enough that people aren’t discouraged from using them. We want people to use them because they shorten the car trip by 80% and keep those cars off the crowded highways. There may be some legal obstacles to charging though because they were built (and in some cases explicitly approved by voters) on the assumption that they would be free.

        The rate could start at 50c and rise gradually to $2 over four years. Remember that the total cost of the trip includes a transit fare on top of that.

      3. I’d set the parking charge to whatever the “market clearing” rate is. That means the lot has a small number of spaces (say 2%) that stay open all day. For some lots that charge is still “free” but for a number of lots that fill quite early (Mercer Island) it might be $5 per day or so.

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