A week ago, the Everett Herald carried an Op-Ed by three Sound Transit Board members from Snohomish County. The authors, Paul Roberts, Dave Earling and Dave Somers, criticize Sound Transit for not completing the light rail spine as quickly as possible. They go on to argue the strict subarea equity policy, where Sound Transit investments go to the subareas that pay for them, should be changed. The end goal, of course, is earlier delivery of rail to Everett at the expense of projects in other areas.
The three board members argue that the transportation needs of the region are not contained within subarea boundaries. They may have particularly in mind the enormous daily flow of Snohomish County residents to jobs in King County. This burden is amplified by expensive housing in Seattle and the Eastside that pushes more households to commute from relatively affordable places in Snohomish and Pierce Counties. Lower income communities also generate less revenues, meaning the areas with the greatest socio-economic needs have the least ability to fund local transit improvements.
The crux of the issue for Snohomish County is that their subarea is small, contributing just 13% of Sound Transit revenues. Their major ST3 investment, a 16.3 mile rail extension from Lynnwood to Everett, is disproportionately expensive at just over $3 billion in 2014 constant dollars. (In actual year-of-expenditure dollars, Snohomish will spend $6.2 billion on light rail capital, including a ridership-based contribution to the downtown tunnel).
In the design of the ST3 plan, Snohomish’ demands stretched available resources and the political consensus. Any plan had to finish the spine, and also serve Paine Field, whatever the needed subsidies from taxpayers in other subareas. Lengthening ST3 from 15 to 25 years made it possible to meet those demands more or less within Snohomish’ tax capacity. The stretching of Sound Transit debt capacity accelerated timelines so Everett service was moved up from 2041 to 2036.
That doesn’t quite make Snohomish self-sufficient. With just 13% of ST3 tax revenues, Snohomish will nevertheless account for more than 26% of Sound Transit borrowing within the ST3 program. That raises questions about Snohomish’ contribution to paying down that debt in an uncertain ST4 program. Snohomish’ assumptions about federal grant support are more aggressive than other areas. Against that, Snohomish contributes just 2% of Bus Rapid Transit capital even as I-405 BRT extends deep into Snohomish County. Only 1% of the $780 million expenditure on State of Good Repair is funded by Snohomish County.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the principle of subarea equity has already been stretched very hard, and in favor of the Snohomish subarea.
Who Would Pay?
If Sound Transit funding priorities were reset in favor of Snohomish County, what other projects would be cancelled or delayed?
The Snohomish County board members point to “ST3 Core Priorities” adopted in 2015, which they characterize as “completing the Link Light Rail spine connecting Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and Bellevue, followed by prioritizing ridership and socioeconomic equity”. Those are constrained by subarea equity policies, but what if they were not?
On its face, ridership and socioeconomic equity would seem to paint a bulls-eye on the Eastside. However, the timing of Eastside projects, either very early in the cycle or far behind Everett, make them unlikely candidates for deferral to assist Snohomish County.
In a March interview with the Seattle Times, Ron Lucas, Mayor of Steilacoom and a Sound Transit Board Vice Chair, declared that he “would be an advocate to try and get Everett earlier,” and would consider removing infill stations. The stations at 130th St, Graham St, and Boeing Access Road are all scheduled to open in 2031. At a combined cost of $268 million, dropping three urban stations for a marginal acceleration of the Everett rail timeline is an obviously poor value.
Some Snohomish politicians have their eye on bigger game. At the County Council meeting in February where Paul Roberts was narrowly reappointed, Roberts repeated his “frustration that Ballard and West Seattle appear to be moving ahead of Everett”. Another Council member questioned “when did it become Sound Transit’s responsibility to transport people from Ballard into Seattle?”
Resetting Snohomish Priorities
In selecting ST3 projects, the Snohomish members demanded, and received, a rail alignment that served the Southwest Everett Industrial Center on its way to Everett. In doing so, they set aside more immediate traffic concerns. Today’s Paine Field lacks the sort of land use that makes transit effective, so rail is a bet that future development takes a more supportive form. There are significant trade-offs. Adding four miles of track and $1 billion dollars in capital, the deviation gains no net ridership, lengthens journeys between Everett and Lynnwood by ten minutes each way, and delays rail to Everett by several years. Even a spur rail line or BRT line from an I-5 alignment, could have been delivered earlier at less cost.
Snohomish County has considerable traffic challenges which light rail to Paine Field does not address unless land use in the area changes dramatically. If Snohomish County is serious about early rail to Everett to alleviate their considerable traffic challenges, reconsidering the Paine Field decision is a good place to start.
Smaller steps are possible. Rather than deliver Lynnwood-Everett rail as one project, a shorter extension to Ash Way and Mariner would enable excellent bus connections from all over South Snohomish County to the spine on an earlier timeline. Converting the congested HOV-2 lanes on I-5 to HOT or HOV-3 would move buses more quickly and reliably.
Snohomish leaders should also consider the overlooked I-405 corridor. That area has seen much faster growth than Everett. But Snohomish’ insistence on maximal resources for light rail left scarce capital dollars for stations on the single HOT lane section north of SR 522. As a result, BRT buses will run in general purpose traffic between Lynnwood and Bothell.