The Sound Transit Board has given up on earlier plans to decide a capital program realignment this year, and will extend the process into the middle of next year. The new “path forward” is a comprehensive realignment plan and schedule for future project delivery by July 2021.
In the meantime, a more limited set of actions will be considered this year on projects that require urgent decisions. Projects already in construction will continue. The Board will continue to schedule design and environmental activities on other projects to maintain shovel-readiness. For baselining and construction decision points, the 2021 plan will proceed on a “placeholder assumption” that all future projects are delayed by about five years. Affected projects may encompass the Eastside BRT projects, some Sounder South improvements, the Link OMF South, Everett Link, and funding agreements for “early win” projects with local partners.
Sound Transit embarked on an effort to “realign” the capital program in April after the COVID pandemic and recession cratered revenue expectations. At the time, CEO Peter Rogoff pushed for prompt Board direction on resetting priorities: “Back in 2010, the board took some 18 months to arrive at what realignment decisions had to be made. We may not have the luxury of being able to wait 18 months to come to finality on these decisions given the sudden cliff that the economy may have jumped off.“
At Thursday’s meeting, staff and board members highlighted the continued uncertainty around future revenue forecasts as a rationale for deferring the capital plan realignment. The length of the recession and the impact to long term revenue forecasts is indeed very difficult to forecast. However, the Board has been unable to make much progress since April. Even the choice of criteria for prioritizing projects turned into a difficult discussion. While the Board did adopt a set of eight criteria on Thursday as a “framework for conversation”, they may not offer much guidance. Eight criteria, taken together, can point in any direction one wishes. Every project will score high on some and low on others, and there’s no apparent guidance how they should be weighted.
The board also adopted a motion asking staff to explore other funding scenarios. These may include state and federal assistance, other new taxes, or voter approval of additional debt capacity. It’s unlikely any of these will play out in time to positively affect the outlook by mid-2021.
CEO Peter Rogoff pointed out one other advantage of delay. As all transit providers in the region are reducing service, they are increasingly coordinating to avoid leaving customers unserved. Reductions at Metro and other local agencies may end up being tailored to avoid impacts in areas where Sound Transit projects are delayed the most.
What are the consequences of delaying the realignment? Does it matter if the Board doesn’t yet have an affordable 25-year plan? Any plan developed this summer would be subject to change in the future. But a system plan also provides a framework for balanced project-level decisions. For the next year, project decisions will play out without an agreed vision for where the agency is going.