At Thursday’s meeting of Sound Transit’s Capital Committee, staff updated boardmembers on both the latest concepts for expediting ST3 project delivery and modifications to the ST3 financial plan. It was an excellent and substantive conversation, and we’ll post video when it becomes available. CEO Peter Rogoff’s presentation on project delivery was a particularly good primer on how projects are developed and delivered in our region, one we’ll likely come back to again and again.
But the big news came later during a presentation on the financial plan, when ST’s Ric Ilgenfritz and CFO Brian McCartan led the committee through a discussion of subarea equity. While Sound Transit normally allocates project costs to the five regional subareas (Snohomish, North King, East King, South King, and Pierce) based on a determination of the proportional benefits that accrue to each, there is also a need to determine “systemwide assets” whose costs should be shared by all subareas. CFO McCartan gave the example of fleet and maintenance costs that should be equally shared between subareas even if the facilities that accommodate them are physically located in one subarea.
With that preamble by McCartan, Ilgenfritz then put up a graphic showing the future capacity constraints of the core segments underneath downtown Seattle, making the case that “All users benefit from core capacity expansion, and the core stations will carry the heaviest load.” CEO Rogoff then chimed in, saying “Ric put this in the positive frame, but it can equally be put in the negative. Absent new tunnel capacity, these regional lines will fail.”
The upshot is that, if the Board approves, Sound Transit will seek to allocate the marginal cost of the new Downtown tunnel to all 5 subareas as a systemwide asset. As a refresher, the Draft ST3 plan allocated 80% of the new tunnel’s costs to North King (Seattle), and 20% to Pierce County since the planned Green Line to Tacoma would use the new tunnel. This would presumably free up additional financial capacity (potentially a few hundred million?) within North King to either expand project scope, expedite project delivery, or both.
The committee seemed warm to the idea, as there was little pushback. King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci particularly rose to its defense, albeit asking for transparency in cost allocation to appease the inevitable criticisms of suburban money funding “a Seattle tunnel.” But the benefits of the new tunnel to suburban riders seemed clear. A trip from Lynnwood to SeaTac, for instance, would use both Seattle tunnels even though the trip originated in Snohomish and ended in South King.
Several groups asked for regional funding of the tunnel during the comment period, including Seattle Subway and the Seattle Transit Advisory Board (disclaimer: I serve on that board). And it makes a ton of sense. Rogoff is right that the “regional spine” is impossible as as a single line concept, that new core capacity is essential, and that all regional users will benefit from it.
Without regionalization, Snohomish County in particular would be getting a free ride, as all 3 King County subareas paid for the original Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel and Pierce County was already slated to contribute to the new tunnel. Recognizing the new tunnel as a regional asset would be good policy, and let’s hope the Board agrees.