"Leaving Rainier Beach", by Stephen De Vight

Revenue forecasts have fallen further from the original projections for Sound Transit 2. The latest estimates extend the shortfall from $3.1 billion over the life of the project to $3.9 billion, out of a $18 billion total program cost.

In the past, the extensive reserves built into project planning had shielded ST from the need to making fundamental changes to the plan. According to ST spokesman Bruce Gray, that may be no longer be the case:

This fall the Board will develop short- and long-term spending priorities during the normal budgeting process from September – November. Options to address the revenue shortfalls may include reducing project scope, extending project timelines and reducing operating and administrative costs.

“Administrative costs” is often interpreted as pure waste, but this is the kind of thing that improves incident planning and makes decent use of variable message boards, so it’s not a free lunch for transit users.

Project-wise, Lindblom notes the threat to non-core projects such as the early S. 200th Street extension, the Aloha streetcar extension, and the tunnel option through Downtown Bellevue.

51 Replies to “Sound Transit Revenue Projections Fall Further”

  1. Why on earth is John Niles being featured as the lone independent voice in the Times’ light rail stories lately?

    1. Perhaps I was interviewed by Seattle Times because I was one of only two non-govt citizens to attend the Sound Transit Board retreat in May where the Board conversed extensively about keeping ST2 commitments in the face of financial shortfalls.

      Also of note, many on the Board want to go back to the voters for authorization of ST3 in 2016.

      1. Don’t get me wrong John, I have no problem at all with you being interviewed. But since you are a light-rail critic the Times should have also spoken with a light-rail supporter—perhaps someone from Transportation Choices Coalition or similar organization. Simple balance is all want. I would have the same concerns if only light-rail advocates were ever quoted.

      2. There’s a persistent media bias in how they report on government: reporters typically see it as “government vs. critics.” Some see it neutrally, others view it as a heroic critic taking on a flawed government agency in the name of accountability. (Lindblom appears to be of the former mindset, not the latter.)

        So in their mind, when they do something like quote Sound Transit and John Niles, they believe they really have achieved “balance” when in fact, they’ve silenced the voice of transit supporters, who should not be conflated with the government agency itself.

  2. Bellevue can kiss both of the proposed B7 South Bellevue garages goodbye – If the Sound Transit board wasn’t already determined to control costs, this news will sharpen their pencils even more. Both of those budget busters are an extra $55 Million or, as Bernie likes to frame things, an *extra* $39,000 *per parking stall*. Double ouch.

    I wonder what the chances of the Bellevue tunnel are at this point…

  3. I thought the ST board already killed the Bellevue tunnel.

    Now if only the Gov would kill the Billionaires tunnel we’d be right as rain.

    1. Bellevue tunnel is still being considered, pending the ability of Sound Transit and the City of Bellevue to find a mutually agreeable funding compromise.

  4. I feel there is a disconnect here — ridership is up, revenue is down. Someone please connect these dots for me.

    1. Vast majority of Sound Transit’s funding for capital projects is derived from sales tax revenue, which has dropped drastically during the recession.

      1. I think this exposes one of the fundamental problems with the way we fund transit. I can’t say I have a solution, exactly, since I’m not an expert at this stuff, but this isn’t a pretty cycle.

      2. The problem is that tax levels are controlled by the state. The state tells us what percent local governments can charge from various funding sources. Some localities don’t levy their maximum so they have room to grow, but King County isn’t one of those places. The current legislators are mostly pro-roads, anti-transit, and anti-Seattle. Most Metro and ST transit is funded by the sales tax, which is subject to wide boom-and-bust swings. There have been proposals to raise the MVET for transit, which is less prone to boom-and-bust, but the legislature won’t let us so we can’t.

  5. Farebox revenue may be up but is more than offset by the loss of tax revenue. And the broader structure of the problem is familiar to governments the world over. Google “automatic stabilizers”.

    1. Not so, John. First, this budget shortfall stems from falling sales-tax revenue and has nothing to do with ridership. Second, U-Link will bring far more riders than Central Link.

      1. Not to mention U-Link, North Link, and South 200th will leverage existing investments in ST’s existing rail yard and control center. Eastlink will have some leverage but not as much since it will require another rail yard. (Which will be handy if we ever sink another bridge) What are we up to these days? 3? 4? I’ve lost count and I wasn’t even alive when galloping Gertie went down :)

      2. If you’re referring to floating bridges, only 2 actually! Hood Canal (west half) and the original Mercer Island bridge. Of course when you consider that we’ve only ever built 6 of the things in the first place, you realize 2 of 6 isn’t so hot. Add in Galloping Gertie… yeah.

        The initial East Link won’t have a rail yard either. They’re doing the environmental reviews for it now, and possibly the engineering as well, but building it is an ST3 item because it is expensive and, initially at least, not necessary.

      3. I could swear the Hood Canal bridge sunk twice but I guess I’m remembering a construction project. Ok then, 2 out of 6 with the distinct possibility of a 3rd if we don’t figure out 520 soon.

      4. The western half sank in 1979, so they replaced that half (reopening in 1982). Last summer WSDOT replaced the remaining east half of the original bridge. So yeah no sinkings, but the east half was apparently in pretty bad shape, especially the draw span. I got the impression that the old east half pontoons were in slightly better shape than 520’s, but the superstructure was in horrible shape (the road deck is elevated) and Hood Canal has far greater storm dangers than 520 is exposed to, so the generalized risk of failure was higher.

      5. Eastlink will have some leverage but not as much since it will require another rail yard.

        Actually there are no plans to build a rail yard as part of the ST2 plans for East Link. The rail yard is part of the extension to downtown Redmond which is having the EIS done but at this point is unfunded.

        So yes a single rail yard will handle Star Lake to Lynnwood to Overlake.

    2. Another Bailoism, where he seems to get his facts from a parallel universe. A place where Seattle is depopulating and the bulk of people are moving to rural Washington. The 71-72-73 are packed and yet there’s still more demand, but little room on Eastlake or I-5 for more buses. The alternatives — 43, 48, 49, 70, and 30 — also fill up. Rainier Valley and Tukwila have nothing comparable to that. So how can you think Link north of downtown will have less ridership than the current Link?

      1. Seriously. I may think the upper-end estimates (hundreds of thousands of daily riders) are a bit fanciful, but there’s not even a shred of doubt in my mind that rail usage in NE Seattle will vastly outstrip the SE segment!

  6. I wouldn’t mind just giving up on East Link as long as the rest of it stays on schedule, especially to Northgate. The UW and Northgate areas desperately need rapid transit and will ride it heavily. Let Bellevue stew in its own juices for a few years and maybe then they’ll see light rail as more vital. In the meantime, the 550 and the B approximate the route.

    I’d also suggest building the Bellevue-Redmond part first and save the controversial south Bellevue section and technically more difficult bridge crossing till later. Then Bellevue would have an Eastside rail system it could expand, even if it didn’t connect to Seattle. But I doubt Bellevue-Redmond alone would be viable, and building the downtown Bellevue station now would preclude the possibility of building a better tunnel there later.

    1. Um . . . two separate rail systems? Sorry, but all the synergies come from expanding off the current spine. Two separate rail systems (one east, and one west of the lake) isn’t what voters approved!

    2. Subarea equity makes that impossible. Bellevue and Redmond’s tax money is spent in Bellevue and Redmond. East Link only dies if the entire Eastside crashes economically, at which point we’d have much bigger problems than worrying about our mass transit systems.

      I don’t think it is realistic to not build the A and B segments (Seattle to South Bellevue) of East Link either. There is no rail yard/maintenance facility included in ST2 for East Link, so there’s nowhere to store the LRVs or do maintenance. I suppose they could always add one, but they deferred it in the first place because a yard is expensive, and initially it isn’t even necessary.

      I’d be curious to know how the revenue projections break down by subarea, because the additional $800 million almost certainly isn’t distributed evenly. The PI’s story said that South King was off 30% but doesn’t mention any of the other subareas.

      1. Not impossible. Central Link was funded in part with money borrowed from the east sub-area funds. It could be used again to help bankroll an excellerated North Link build out. Given that there seem to be less concerns with that route and that it’s ridership would likely surpass East Link that might not be a bad idea.

  7. While it’s probably good if it makes voters more supportive of funding for transit projects… is this really very newsworthy?

    As has been pointed out above, the news item here is really that sales tax revenues continue to be down. And that is a serious issue that affects not only transit, but many of our local governments and the programs they fund as well.

    The headline almost makes it sound like ST did something wrong.

  8. Revenue may have fallen but construction prices have fallen just as fast. I don’t see how this hurts the agency overall with respect to its capital project goals.

    1. And this is the piece people are missing. While the revenue is down, it’s not costing as much to build anymore. You can see this by all the estimates. If revenue is down 20%, construction costs seem to be down even more. So maybe there will be a shortfall of $4b out of the $18b, but it appears that all these bids are coming in even lower.

      1. The question is how much revenue is permanently gone by the time bids go out and what the economy and construction costs are like then. Construction costs will rebound, but the revenue lost due to the recession is gone for good.

    2. ST knows this and has been taking advantage of the lower bids. So the revenue is clearly falling faster than construction costs are, otherwise there wouldn’t be this problem.

  9. Has Sound Transit ever considered something like the 30/10 plan that Los Angeles’s Metro is pursuing?

    This is the plan hatched by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and now endorsed by the Metro board as well as California’s two US Senators, to have the federal government loan Metro the $40 billion so they could build in 10 years what would normally take 30 years to build just based on the revenues of their regional transit sales tax (Measure R, approved in November 2008). The loan is repaid through that sales tax revenue.

    That could help ST fund the original ST2 plan while leaving some wiggle room for adjustments based on project costs and revenues.

    1. I’ve been following LA’s plan and it does indeed sound excellent. However, is there any momentum at the Federal level to make it happen? Seems to have a lot of support in CA but I haven’t heard much from the Feds.

      The plan has a lot of promise to speed up many projects around the country, and would seem to have more impact than the small grants given out every now and then, or more “stimulus” packages which just kind of sprinkle a little here and a little there.

      1. 30/10 has support from Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, President Barack Obama, and I believe from Speaker Nancy Pelosi as well.

        It ought to get bipartisan support, since Republicans can use a similar model to accelerate project construction at home if local governments in their districts have similar funding streams.

  10. At the risk of sounding obstinate or nonresponsive, I’ll repeat my suggestion of ditching 200th Street Station (for now), and going directly to building Des Moines Station.

    Yes, there exists some (not much) potential ridership around 200th St Station, but the great leap forward will come with Des Moines Station, which has much more neighborhood around it, has the best access to the valley, and is the closest South Link station to I-5.

    Yes, 4 miles is a long stop spacing, but we already have a greater stop spacing between Rainier Beach and TIBS, with more in between them than there is between Airport and Des Moines.

    Besides, the main point of South Link isn’t to serve neighborhoods along Pacific Highway S. It is to get Link closer to downtown Tacoma. In that light, I think the sub-area equity makes no sense. It is kinda like charging Allentown and Tukwila for the portion of light rail between Rainier Beach and Airport Station.

    Ditch sub-area equity. Thin the least-valuable stations from the line (but consider fill-in stations for later). Keep growing the length of the spine as quickly as feasible.

    1. Sounds like a reasonable plan but ST cost per mile doesn’t get you the extra length for just dropping a station. If it did I’d be saying drop stations on East Link and build out to Marymoor and DT Redmond. $150 million a mile when there’s no tunnels, lakes, etc. is just ridiculous. It’s like 3X anybody else’s cost and when you break down the budget it’s going more toward engineering/planning than construction. That sounds a lot like either they still don’t know what they’re doing or they know too much and there’s some major kick backs paying off political favors.

      1. The planned Portland-Milwaukie light rail line is going to cost about $1.7 billion for 7.3 miles, or about $232 million per mile.

      2. That’s a serious shot across the bow. Clearly ST needs to work hard to maintain our number one status.

      3. Maybe they could hire Frank Gehry to design the S. 200th station! That would get them back in line with Portland :-)

      4. That’s good! To be honest I’d never heard of the guy. Wiki isn’t probably the best way to judge someone but he sounds a lot like my favorite industrial designer, Raymond Lowe, except with none of the style and all of the “quirks”. From Wiki,

        DeCon structures are not required to reflect specific social or universal ideas, such as speed or universality of form, and they do not reflect a belief that form follows function.

        So, more expensive, useless and ugly. Yeah baby, let’s make it just like EMP but out of titanium. It’ll be a cost savings… we can market it as START included at no extra cost.

      5. The Milwaukee line also includes an expensive new Bridge over the Willamette that will also be configured to carry buses, pedestrians, and bicycles.

    2. “ditching 200th Street Station (for now), and going directly to building Des Moines Station.”

      That wouldn’t be a bad idea. That would serve Highline CC, which would bring tangible benefits to South King County sooner. And it’s the best station for Kent-Link BRT.

  11. Lets get North Link up to Lynnwood, everybody up here would love to have it, no fighting about tunnels required! :)

  12. With respect to Link, the biggest cost savings potential that I see is to tone down the stations a bit, especially some of the elevated stations. TIB station is very nice, but it seems a little too grand for a station next to a freeway in the middle of a parking lot. I hope that ST will scale back some of the stations for ST2 to something that’s still functional and efficient, but without so many unnecessary bells and whistles.

    Here’s a picture of the station in Amsterdam that I often use: http://www.tripolis-offices.com/downloads/images/full/foto-16-bewerkt.jpg (Amstelveenseweg Metro station). You can see that it’s very basic – no expensive glass walls, no full cover, no expensive artwork. Just function. This is despite the fact that it’s in an area that’s just as windy and rainy as Seattle (if not more so) and the station also sits right in the middle of a busy freeway. Maybe this is even a bit too basic, but it doesn’t seem to hurt ridership.

    Budget cuts will have to be found. Scaling back some of the station designs to something more utilitarian seems to be an easy fix.

    1. Is Amselveenseweg station accessible? I wonder how much ADA requirements add to grade-separated stations.

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