Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff
Credit: Joe Kunzler

Last week, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff sat down for a wide-ranging interview with STB. We’re posting the first part of that conversation today.

This post has been edited for length and clarity. We’ll post an unedited transcript of Rogoff’s remarks with Part 2.

STB: Executive Somers and some other folks from Snohomish and Pierce Counties have raised concerns about the price tag of the Seattle extensions.

How are discussions going amongst the Board, and with yourself and other staff? How are you making sure Seattle gets the best project, but also meeting those needs?

Rogoff: We’ve always said for places like Lynnwood and Federal Way, the issue isn’t going to be if we’re going to build out there—or the same is true for Snohomish and Tacoma—it’s going to be when.

If our finances don’t hold together, it causes us to push projects out, at greater cost, while congestion only worsens. That’s obviously a scenario we want to avoid, whether it’s because of the loss of federal funds, or MVET tax revenues, or a very deep recession.

I frankly think that the process we’re in is giving rise to precisely the right choices for the Sound Transit Board. We have a partnering agreement with the City of Seattle that clarifies that substantial scope expansions, beyond the representative alignment for West Seattle and Ballard—third party funding will be required to pay for those.

That’s not new for the agency. The City of Bellevue committed $50 $100 million so that we could tunnel under Bellevue, rather than be elevated or at grade through downtown Bellevue as part of the East Link project.

Note: The original memorandum of understanding between Bellevue and ST authorized up to $160 million in funding for the tunnel from the city.

According to ST spokesperson Geoff Patrick, Bellevue ultimately contributed $100 million, after ST and the City arrived at the reduced figure after a joint “value engineering effort.” 

So what we’re doing, through our very public process, and very transparent process, is consulting with stakeholders, establishing the elected leadership groups, and they will give rise to choices for us to put through the environmental process.

I expect that those will include some tunneling options that the City would like to see, but we’ve been very clear through the process, and through our partnering agreement, that those options will require third party funding.

We will simultaneously put through the environmental process some viable non-tunneling options that will be the best project that does not necessarily engage in tunneling.

We will be keeping at least two options alive for a long time. We will see if the third party funding can be brought together so that the Board can consider the tunneling options.

So we’re keeping options open while the third party discussion continues, and I think what you’re hearing from the members in the boardroom, is just a reflection of that game plan.

That makes a lot of sense. Speaking of third party funding, have you heard anything from City elected officials or Anne Fennessy about city sources?

I’ve also heard rumors about the Port of Seattle kicking in some money as well. Have you heard those rumors, and can you comment on either of them?

I’m not going to comment on them, because it really is a discussion for the City, the County, the Port and others, other than to say that they’re keeping us informed of their exploratory process, figuring out what the art of the possible is, and there may be opportunities to derive third party funding.

I think those conversations are just beginning, but they’re sincere and serious enough for us to want to move forward with two options at the minimum through the environmental process to keep those options on the table.

I know the board has talked about April 24th as the day for deciding on preferred alternatives. Would there be two preferred alternatives going forward from there?

That remains to be seen. There will be two options going through the environmental process. You raise a fair question. We’re in conversations with our environmental staff right now, on how to structure the actual board motions so that we’ll have at least two options alive.

So it could be more than two. A very important part of our system expansion implementation plan, which we developed after the passage of ST3, in order to ensure that we can actually deliver ST3, was to make a number of changes in the way we have done business in comparison to the past.

One of them was to  try to narrow the number of alternatives to study and move forward on. Because, if you look at the history of East Link, for example, I mean—they went through an insane process that involved the review of literally dozens of alternatives.

Right. That was awful.

It filled up time, it sucked up money. As a result, we’re not delivering East Link til 2023. You can only make up so much time in construction, especially if we’re not going to be running equipment trucks through residential communities at night, right?

So where you make up time is through the planning and permitting process. The concept of trying to narrow, early on, the number of alternatives to go through the environmental process, is a critical part of our effort to be able to deliver these projects on time.

So too will be the development of permitting agreements, and piercing through the mind-numbing bureaucracy that certain municipalities burden us with just to be able to get shovels in the ground.

That’s a very colorful way of putting it.

Not colorful if you live it.

That raises another question: can you start applying for permits while the EIS is still in progress, or is there any sort of limitations on that?

Well, you can’t presuppose the outcome of the environmental process. That said, we are very anxious to work with the City of Seattle, and in our partnering agreement it’s actually one of the late-breaking changes we made with Mayor Durkan when we put it together, that was to accelerate discussions to developing a permitting plan with the City.

We can’t necessarily apply for permits before the environmental process is done, but there’s no reason we can’t sit down and hash out a permitting plan that will make things happen far more quickly when it comes to things like design review and the number of permits we have to obtain, and the process we will have to go through to get them.

We had a very illuminating presentation to our board, now well over a year ago, in which we talked about the number of permits and processes we needed to go through to get U Link built. We cannot relive that and deliver to West Seattle by 2030. We just cannot.

So, we need to create a new mousetrap in partnership with the city. I believe they are just as anxious to deliver this project as we are, and we’re looking forward to partnering with them to get this done.

Right. You definitely saw that with the last set of city elections, where, apart from housing, I think the main issue was we want transit and we want it yesterday. So it seems like there’s a pretty strong political imperative to accelerate that from the City side.

Yeah. I think we’re all chasing the same goal. The challenge will be in the grunt work to make it happen.

18 Replies to “Sound Transit CEO optimistic about third-party funding, expedited permits for Link from City of Seattle (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. I look forward to reading part 2, where you ask him the tough questions about the Ballard Station location, or a very deep station in the International District.

    1. I don’t get the deep ID station at all. At the ELG meeting, Bruce Harrell, who seems to be the de facto representative for the ID’s interests, expressed no interest at all in the deep stations, but wanted the Massachusetts portal / shallow 5th tunnel put back where the stakeholders group had taken it out. That’s the most sensible option, so hopefully it makes it into the EIS.

  2. So far I don’t see anything new. they are keeping multiple options alive, but only some. They are trying to work with the city to get permitting done quicker. the east link process was awful.

    At least Mr. Rogoff is willing to take questions though. It would be nice if they had a PR person interacting much more with the community. These community engagement meetings are nice I suppose, but they feel kind of like a show.

  3. Good interview, thanks! I’m hoping Part 2 has question(s) about train/train and train/bus transfers. I would be curious to know how much lip service they pay to the importance of convenient connections, and how they describe their plan for achieving it.

  4. I’m wary of the City of Seattle providing additional funding for tunneling to West Seattle and Ballard. There’s two reasons for this.

    First, we’re already decades behind in building out the City’s light rail system. I don’t see spending more on capital expenses that don’t improve travel time, capacity, or coverage as a good use of city funding while we have so many other transit needs.There are potential ST capital expenses that could be a worthwhile (but still debatable!) use of city funds, but making the line tunneled rather than elevated is not one of them.

    Secondly, I worry that city funding for a tunnel creates a precedent for ST to lowball future projects by proposing the bare minimum, with the implicit expectation that the City will pick up the difference for a better design.

    1. This is exactly right. Nothing prevented ST from baselining ST3’s projects to be of higher quality. Instead of a $54B package, it’s a $58B package. Instead of 24 years, it’s 27 years. Whatever. This ballot measure was destined for a huge victory, given the overwhelming demand for mass transit in the region, yet ST has to continually be cajoled, hectored, and pressured into delivering more and better projects. It’s symptom A1 of a dysfunctional, overly risk-averse, poorly led, and totally-lacking-in-vision agency that is dominated by the lesser instincts of suburban no-nothings.

      I sincerely hope there are deeper questions in part 2. If this community won’t hold Rogoff accountable, who will?

    2. “Nothing prevented ST from baselining ST3’s projects to be of higher quality. Instead of a $54B package, it’s a $58B package.”

      It could have been $100B and then it would have been really transformative, but $54B was already far above the original precedent and expectation of $25B, and the further you go up the more marginal votes you might lose. The vote wasn’t a sure thing beforehand, and in the end both Pierce and South King voted now, and it was uncertain whether East King and Snohomish would meet the threshold. A Ballard tunnel would obviously be better. A West Seattle tunnel is unnecessary, just like West Seattle Link is unnecessary, or its stub opening in 2030 ahead of the second SODO track and DSTT2. We could have made a robust multi-branch BRT solution for less. But that was the compromise. People like me have already spent decades of our life making do without Link to Northgate, the U-District, Ballard, and Bellevue, and a solution that doesn’t come until we’re over 65 or 70 has limited benefit for us, although it would help our children in their middle age.

  5. If you didn’t ask in Part 2, we need more information on the 15th-vs-14th issue. We need a guarantee that there will be a 15th option in the final that does not depend on an unfunded tunnel. The board should not be put into the position of having to reject the preferred alternative(s) proposal and ask for further modifications, because they’ll likely be reluctant to reject a final proposal, and they may rely on the recommendations of the Stakeholders Advisory Group and Electeds Advisory Group which were flawed and not the whole picture.

    This raises another issue for both the staff and the board. There is not enough rider input; we need a Riders Review Board or something equivalent. If we’d had that, this situation wouldn’t have happened, and there also would be more specifics about the minimum quality of train-to-train transfers at Westlake, Intl Dist, and maybe SODO. So what is ST going to do about this flaw in the process, and what solutions is it considering?

  6. I would suggest that congestion won’t worsen if we have a regional recession. We would lose jobs and that will seemingly reduce travel demand.

    I would also suggest that congestion as justification for a transit system isn’t the impetus that it used to be. People would increasingly prefer to have time on tablets and smart phones rather than stuck driving. It’s that profound lifestyle switch — particularly for those under 35 — which has not been fully understood by many over 50 or 60.

    A few decades ago, driving while playing the radio was considered pleasant or fun. Today, it’s been replaced by listening while web-surfing — both off one’s phone.

    1. About younger people and transit:

      First, while it’s great that I can read and use social media and messaging apps while I’m on the bus/train, I still want the trip itself to be faster so that I can spend more time at home or with friends.

      Secondly, hang around a bar or club any night of the week and you’ll see a stream of 20 and 30-somethings using Uber and Lyft to get around the city – the same trip on transit can take 2-4 times as long.

      Transit frequency, speed, and convenience matter to everyone.

    2. Right, there’s no difference between being where I want to be vs being were I don’t want to be, or using a full-sized screen and keyboard vs a tiny screen and touchscreen, or having dinner in 30 minutes vs sitting hungry for 60 minutes.

  7. I assume something is going on behind the scenes that warrants Mr. Rogoff being bullish about local funding.

    What I don’t understand is this: Why are local leaders so bullish on spending $1B-ish on mostly aesthetic upgrades to Link when they are balking at fully funding Move Seattle and the CCC?

    It’s… incredible.

    Side question: Anyone want to put together a list of transit investments we could invest $700M on toimprove transit?

    You know… unlike a West Seattle tunnel.

  8. Very interesting. A few thoughts:

    “We’ve always said for places like Lynnwood and Federal Way, the issue isn’t going to be if we’re going to build out there—or the same is true for Snohomish and Tacoma—it’s going to be when.”

    This seems to be to be untrue, at least in the past. In ST2, Link was going to end at Star Lake (one station short of where it really matters already), and it was quietly truncated at Kent-Des Moines road. I’ve always viewed it in terms of the ends of the line, where a station is in some danger of being cut if it’s within a few stations of the terminal (currently Tacoma, Fife, Everett, SR 526. Downtown Redmond should be pretty solid, but I’d have to imagine S. Kirkland is susceptible because it’s a new branch that seems kinda pointless). Maybe this time it’s different because the timescale is much longer, but I would have to think that the realistic worst-case scenarios result in truncations, especially given that ST budgets razor-thin contingency funds.

    Of course, stations that are in danger become safe once the next ballot measure passes, so Star Lake goes from cancelled to certain after ST3, and opens at the same time as KDM. I hope he doesn’t mean that they will be built presuming the passage of ST4, because that seems dishonest.

    “There will be two options going through the environmental process. You raise a fair question. We’re in conversations with our environmental staff right now, on how to structure the actual board motions so that we’ll have at least two options alive.

    So it could be more than two.”

    I think this is a good idea. Though there is more time this time around to weigh many options, I like if we can focus on two (or three if there are three compelling options), and refine them. The worry, of course, is that the two we get are bad options like the infamous East Link “Vision Line.”

    And I like his points about working with the city of Seattle for funding. It makes me think that he’s not willing to tunnel where it’s not necessary using ST’s own money, which means it will be up to Seattle to waste money on a tunnel for West Seattle if it wants to. Obviously ST could end up picking up part of the cost increase, but a firm stance on this issue is encouraging.

    1. Star Lake wasn’t canceled, it was deferred. KDM and UW were also deferred, and later undeferred when revenues recovered or they found a less-risky alignment.

      “I think this is a good idea.”

      An EIS normally has one preferred alternative, one or more unpreferred alternative, and a no-build alternative. Having more than one preferred alternative is unusual. It may be worthwhile now to get through the issues of a good option vs a stakeholder-supported option, but ST will ultimately have to choose one preferred alternative before it applies for federal grants. So two preferred alternatives suggests the process isn’t going well.

      The number of alternatives is larger than ideal but still smaller than the South Bellevue situation. ST asked the communities to agree on as few alternatives as possible, and this is what we got.

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