Sound Transit and King County Metro, along with agencies in other major cities, are making a concerted effort for more federal assistance in the upcoming COVID-19 relief package. Yesterday, the leaders of 27 major agencies joined in calling for up to $36 billion in aid for transit to cover COVID-related expenses and replacing depleted local tax revenues in 2020 and 2021.
Transit operators face a variety of needs. For legacy systems, decreased farebox revenues have put extraordinary pressure on operations while costs related to COVID mitigation have increased. For newer systems that are growing, the recession will reduce local tax revenues for years, imperiling expansion timelines.
While King County Metro is reducing operations, Sound Transit is facing a delay to planned rail and BRT extensions. Current operations are a relative small part of the Sound Transit budget, but the long-term loss of sales tax revenues combines with statutory limits on debt to put the current planned system expansion timeline out of reach.
Among the various assistance measures being debated, the most valuable to Sound Transit could increase the federal share of existing Full Funding Grant Agreements (FFGA) by 30%. A similar provision is in the Investing in America Act recently passed by the House.
In the current FFGAs, Lynnwood Link received a federal match of 36% or $1.17 billion. Federal Way Link received a 25% match for $790 million. A 30% increment to those FFGAs would mean $1.9 billion of additional federal support for Sound Transit.
The assistance might not speed Link to Federal Way and Lynnwood much. Those projects are already in active construction. But it would materially reduce the delays to every project that follows. Currently, Sound Transit is projecting a $1 billion revenue loss through 2021, and up to $12 billion through 2041.
$1.9 billion in extra federal assistance would go some ways in offsetting that, and would have a more than proportionate benefit to project timelines because the assistance would come earlier in the program. Currently, Sound Transit estimates a five-year average delay to ST3 projects not already in construction. Additional funding for Federal Way and Lynnwood might shave those delays by two years.
The CARES Act delivered $25 billion in aid to transit operators nationally, with $166 million of that eventually delivered to Sound Transit and $243 million to King County Metro. That money largely went to current operations and COVID-related expenses. The next package, focused more on the recovery, could be more significant for Sound Transit if it focuses more on capital programs.