Sound Transit officials are the latest group to be hurt by the ongoing federal government shutdown—the Federal Transit Authority isn’t returning their calls. As a result, the agency’s environmental review process for the West Seattle-Ballard Link line could be delayed.
The shutdown, engineered by President Donald Trump, has required Federal Transit Agency (FTA) employees to go on furlough, according to Sound Transit officials. Sound Transit can’t proceed in the environmental review process—which is supposed to start with a 30 day public comment period in February—without FTA participation.
“We hope it will be in February, but we can’t give you a specific date yet, because we have to talk to the federal government, and they won’t return our calls,” said Sound Transit project lead Cathal Ridge, adding later that FTA officials have been furloughed due to the ongoing government shutdown.
The planned timeline projects the draft environmental statement—the result of concurrent work on state and federal environmental review processes—to be published in late 2020, and the final environmental impact statement to be released in 2022. Final design would come between 2022 and 2026, after Sound Transit identifies and acquires parcels through purchase or eminent domain.
Sound Transit wants to present one alignment that could be built using existing funding, and another that would require additional funding from a third party (like the City of Seattle, King County, the State of Washington, or Port of Seattle) to the agency board this spring. As CEO Peter Rogoff told STB, the agency hopes the dual track, and a tantalizing, luxe alignment, will entice funding out of an area government.
The process of laying out those alignments continues. In a presentation last night, Sound Transit officials asked West Seattle-Ballard stakeholder advisory group members (in true Seattle Process fashion) to prepare to choose two alignments in March.
Advisory group members had lots of questions about third party funding. Advisory group member Steve Lewis, of the Alliance for People with disAbilities, asked who or what third party would step up.
“We’re not fussy about that part of it,” said Ridge, “but I think the obvious parties are, of course, the city and the county. They come to mind, but I don’t want to say it’s an exclusive list.”
Ridge also said that Sound Transit was open to private funding, but not actively searching for private contributions.
Earlier in the day, a city source said it is “too early” for the city to start working on a funding plan. They did suggest that Sound Transit’s pending Level 3 cost estimates, which are expected to be released in February, will stimulate discussion in City Hall about additional funding.
After the presentation, several advisory group members separately expressed frustration about the lack of costing at this point in the group’s process. “It would really help us make decisions,” said one member.
Even with environmental review looming, it’s unclear how set Sound Transit is on the present alignments. I asked spokesperson Kimberly Reason if the three Level 3 alignments were 75% complete. Reason demurred, saying that the agency “didn’t want to put a number” to the extent that the designs are finished.
Ridge echoed the same point, saying that stakeholder advisory group and elected official groups still have the opportunity to make significant changes to alignments, including “mixing and matching” elements of each.
He also said that hypothetical third party funding deliberations could also further change alignments, even after the environmental review process has begun.