Part 2 of a series
Sound Transit recently delivered some disappointing news about their estimates for ST3 project costs. When paired with decreased revenue due to Covid-19, the projected 50% increase to Ballard and West Seattle cost estimates present a gloomy outlook for the projects. There is a lot of hard work ahead, but it’s still possible for Sound Transit to deliver the high quality system voters approved. Transit improvements are still essential to our city and these projects must be delivered. We need to look hard at a combination of new funding sources and value engineering to get this plan back on the right track. However, making major decisions about the quality, scope, and schedule of ST3 this year is a mistake with long reaching consequences.
The underlying reasons to build transit in Seattle haven’t changed. Seattleites still want fast, reliable, convenient, low-carbon ways to get around the city. Voters have repeatedly reaffirmed their desire to make progress on transit — including November’s vote that passed by over 60 points in the middle of a pandemic. Seattleites believe in a post- pandemic future, and we need to make sure Sound Transit delivers the progress they demand.
A large part of the cost increases presented by Sound Transit are outside of their control: property and construction costs in Seattle have been super heated since ST3 was initially budgeted. For those increases we need to look to the federal government to return to investments in US cities. With Biden as President and a Democratic Senate, we have good reasons to be optimistic that help is coming. We also need to look closer to home: Our state’s tradition of not investing in transit has to come to an end, and there is no better time than now. We can infer from King County data that Seattle exports about 50% of our taxes to the rest of the state – the state needs to use more of our money on investments here.
In addition to revenue sources listed above, Sound Transit can also look for additional cost savings using two methods:
The first cost-saving step is Realignment, which will last from January through July. During this time, the board will consider a combination of four cost control options (pg 6):
1. Delay the delivery of projects to various extents to maintain plan affordability
2. Deliver projects in phases
3. Reduce project scopes
4. Suspend or delete projects
In this one instance, we think Sound Transit needs to slow down. We should not be rushing to make decisions that change what voters approved — particularly not during a pandemic-induced recession. Reducing scope is unacceptable. Removing stations is unacceptable. Making those kinds of decisions now runs counter to our need to avert climate change, deliver the transit system promised to voters, and give people a better option than their car. Project timelines already provide what should be more than enough time to deliver. These projects won’t break ground for years, so Sound Transit should only even consider any of these options when all other avenues have been exhausted. We’re not there yet.
We need to remember the one piece of good news Sound Transit announced at its January 21, 2021 Board Workshop: we have until the end of 2029 to fix the funding gap.
The second cost-saving step is the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process, during which some value engineering and other cost saving measures can be implemented. The EIS should come out this summer and the Board’s decision-making process should last into 2023.
These include costs that are within Sound Transit’s ability to control. Some of the costs appear to be artifacts of the planning process itself and can be relatively easily avoided, such as the West Seattle section noted in The Urbanist. Other changes will require more creative thinking. As we review potential changes to ST3, it’s critical that we do not bend on quality: Putting trains in traffic is unacceptable. Building new grade crossings with car traffic or a new alignment that isn’t completely in exclusive right-of-way will make the system slower and less reliable. That isn’t what people voted for in ST3.
Sound Transit needs to prioritize delivering the system and put transit riders first: Use street right of way wherever possible, avoid up-zoned properties wherever possible, and review cases where individual stakeholders and property owners pushed the plan to expensive options that don’t add value for riders. High quality transit and the benefits it brings is the entire point of this investment. Making the system less accessible to riders is not a compromise we should consider. All rail stations and light rail projects must be maintained.
While issues like rapidly rising property values were impossible to avoid in the context of the current planning process, it’s worth noting that they aren’t impossible to avoid in general. Sound Transit currently does planning one expansion at a time rather than planning for a system as we’ve advocated when talking about ST4 Seattle and the case for passing HB 1304. If Sound Transit were authorized to plan for a complete system, then they could strategically purchase properties decades before they are needed. Those properties would become a benefit to Sound Transit and the public rather than contribute to a funding crisis.
Here’s the bottom line: delivering the system that voters want remains possible and we believe Sound Transit will be able to do it. Like all things transit, it won’t just magically happen — they will need the help of this community and the help of our institutions to make it a reality.
Please write the Sound Transit Board at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask them to seek federal and state funding, maintain the scope and quality of ST3, and avoid decisions that impact what voters approved until it is absolutely necessary.