On Thursday, two Sound Transit committees heard staff recommendations for proceeding with paused actions this year. The seven project actions staff are recommending come to just $76 million, though they relate to some $7 billion of larger projects. Along the way, there were tantalizing clues to staff intentions about the larger realignment process to come next summer, perhaps including a phased approach to some rail and BRT projects.
When the pandemic and recession hit in March, it immediately imperiled Sound Transit’s already finely balanced financial plan. The most current projections show the agency running up against constitutional debt limits by 2028 unless spending plans are adjusted or new revenue sources found. The Board decided early on to proceed with projects that are already in active construction, and would consider later how to ‘realign’ timelines and priorities for those further in the future. A comprehensive realignment of future projects is now scheduled for July 2021.
Between the ongoing projects where construction is continuing, and the future projects whose fate will be decided next year, are a set of mostly smaller project actions that were briefly paused in March. Staff are now recommending to move some of these forward, and to delay others until the broader realignment is decided. More details by mode after the jump.
Link light rail
Just one of the paused projects relates to Link rail (other Link projects are either under construction or too far in the future to require urgent decisions). Staff are recommending a consultant contract proceed on the north OMF because of long lead times, and because the work would support multiple phasing options for Everett Link. Everett Link is by far the longest ST3 rail extension (somewhat longer than the total miles of track from Westlake to Lynnwood), and the Snohomish subarea may see revenues decline more than others with challenges in the aircraft industry. An on-time opening to Ash Way or Mariner could still be feasible if separated from the segment to Everett.
Two preliminary engineering contracts are recommended to move forward. But a consultant contract for the Bus Base North in Bothell will be deferred. With some of the Stride projects likely to be deferred, it’s not yet clear how urgently the planned bus base capacity will be needed. Partner agencies are also likely to have more capacity than was anticipated before the pandemic.
Also deferred is the $275 million contract with WSDOT to rebuild the NE 85th St interchange in Kirkland. That’s not time-critical yet. It could be executed next year and still support opening Stride on I-405 North by 2025. At nearly one-third the total cost of the I-405 BRT program, however, it’s likely to loom large in any effort to find savings in the East King subarea.
WSDOT construction of I-405 South express lanes is underway, making it likely the Stride S1 line will open on time. A deferral of the S2 line in the north seems probable. Some of the complication is a chicken-and-egg funding problem for WSDOT and Sound Transit. WSDOT has planned expanded HOT lanes to speed Stride service through the Bothell area. Both agencies are facing revenue shortfalls (declining toll revenue in WSDOT’s case), and are now eyeing the other in making their own prioritization decisions in the area.
Staff recommend proceeding with a consultant contract for parking projects at Kent and Auburn that may develop lower cost options. (At $216,000 per added stall in Auburn, and $275,000 per added stall in Kent, how hard could it be to find cost savings?). South King board members are paying close attention to parking projects and oppose any reduction in scope, arguing that they have been promised since ST2.
Projects being deferred include project development for Sounder South platform extensions and consultant contracts for a $210 million Sounder Maintenance base. In both, staff prefer to wait and see whether commuters return to Sounder. A long-term increase in telework would bring into question the planned fleet expansion and need for longer trains. Parking projects in Everett, Mukilteo, South Tacoma and Lakewood remain on hold for the same reason. A reduction in travel demand on Sounder would reduce the need for any of these.
Other projects & 3rd party agreements
Finally, there’s a grab bag of other projects and third-party agreements. Sound Transit’s contribution to Madison BRT is proceeding to enable city access to federal grants. An agreement on Sound Transit’s contribution to RapidRide improvements on the C and D lines is proposed to remain on hold. Sound Transit staff view the project definition as too preliminary to proceed yet. Mayor Jenny Durkan and Executive Dow Constantine both dispute this characterization, and warned of a risk that federal funding would be lost without timely Sound Transit support. That debate is likely to be taken up by the full Board later this month.