A series of meetings this week will select criteria for Sound Transit’s program realignment. A Board workshop will be held on Wednesday. On Thursday the Executive Committee expects to recommend evaluation criteria for projects to be altered or delayed. On June 25, the full Board is to approve those criteria before a further series of meetings evaluates what is to be done with each project.
The most current recession scenarios, shared with the Board last Thursday, predict a sales tax loss of 26%-31% this year and 27%-35% in 2021. That’s compounded by lost fare revenue, but also offset partly by $166 million in CARES Act assistance.
Added up, the current revenue loss expectation is for $743-$953 million through the end of next year alone. The model appears to anticipate a long recession with revenues persistently below past projections after the pandemic has passed.
Some more federal aid is possible. One bill in the House could direct $442 million to Seattle area agencies (just a little under the $538 million for Seattle in the CARES Act). The back-of-the-envelope math suggests $136 million for Sound Transit, though the legislation is far from passage. It’s enough to ameliorate current operational deficits, but too little to offset the effect of a long recession on the capital program.
It’s very early, of course, to predict the effect of the recession on future revenues. After the 2008 recession, Sound Transit did not settle on a realignment until September 2010, but CEO Peter Rogoff has emphasized his determination to make decisions much more quickly this time. The realignment seems on schedule for decisions by later this summer, which means the Board is prioritizing a timely response over a precise view of where the economy is going.
Missing so far is any public discussion of how different areas will be affected by the recession, or what that would mean for the prioritization process. It is, of course, very early to estimate the subarea financials with any precision at all. But it’s certainly plausible, for instance, that the aerospace-heavy Snohomish subarea will face a deeper and longer recession than the tech-heavy East King. Don’t bet on that factoring in the public meeting discussions. But don’t bet on it being ignored in the final outcomes either.
The Board materials are long on discussions about priorities. There are too many competing priorities for them to offer useful guidance absent a great deal of further refinement. In practice, one may view these priorities as proxies for local interests in the upcoming discussions. High ridership areas will fight for ridership to figure prominently. Socially or economically disadvantaged places will appeal to equity. Cities to the far north and south will emphasize the completion of the regional light rail spine.
The question to be answered next week is whether a coherent set of regional priorities will emerge, or whether each area will pursue its own agenda within its own diminished resources.