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.