The Sound Transit Board on Thursday received several illustrative scenarios for prioritizing ST3 projects through the realignment required this summer because of tax shortfalls and cost overruns. The scenarios bookend the range of possibilities with delays on individual projects ranging from 1 to 14 years.
Among the scenarios is a phasing approach which would keep delays on the highest priority projects within the range of 2 to 4 years. Due to subarea constraints on Board action, some variation of the phasing approach seems the most likely to emerge from the realignment process.
‘Additional Capacity’ options.
In a lengthy presentation, staff also reviewed options for additional revenue that might reduce these delays. This would lean most heavily on increased federal support, including aid for transit that is making its way through the House in the current COVID relief bill. While the political environment in DC has shifted in favor of support for transit, and the baseline financial scenario has already been cushioned with $3 billion of additional expected grants, Sound Transit wants to go further with another $2-$8 billion in aid over the life of the program. Similarly, Sound Transit hopes to extract $4 billion from the state legislature, mostly through direct appropriations.
Locally, there are three options in play. The Board could enact a rental car tax, though the $70 million impact is very small. With majority voter approval in an RTA ballot, a $24 annual head tax could raise $685 million through 2041. A more material option would be an expansion of Sound Transit’s debt capacity. That adds $1-3 billion of capacity, but that requires 60% voter approval.
Except for some federal aid, this is all fairly speculative and will not be much clearer this summer than it is today. The Board will need to make realignment decisions not knowing if any of these options will play out favorably, though it will be tempting to postpone announcing project delays by assuming the best.
The illustrative scenarios should not be taken very literally. Sound Transit is required to consider all the goals of the ST2 and ST3 plans, and also to conform to subarea equity. The illustrative scenarios do neither. They benchmark what alternative capital plans would look like if the prioritization were driven by just one consideration.
The ridership scenario prioritizes projects with the largest total ridership. Weirdly, there’s no cost performance metric here, so small projects that may perform well on a rider per dollar basis fall to the bottom. The ridership metric would have delays of no more than two years on the downtown Seattle tunnel and Ballard extension, but would see the infill stations and parking projects delayed up to 11 years if no additional funding beyond the current forecast is forthcoming.
The equity scenario very nearly flips this. Infill stations perform well (as measured by the income and race mix in the one-mile station circle). Some South King and Pierce projects also perform better on this metric, with Ballard and most Eastside projects underperforming. The range of delays to projects on this metric vary from about two to ten years.
The spine scenario needs no introduction. Extensions to Tacoma Dome and Everett would see two years of delay on the Everett-Tacoma spine. The second downtown Seattle tunnel would also open within two years of its original schedule. Every other project would see nine years of delay.
The last and most complex scenario combines tenure and opportunities for phasing. The tenure criteria would give the highest priority to projects promised in ST2, and phasing would break apart most of the large ST3 projects to deliver some nearly on-time station openings in every geography.
Some of the phasing suggestions are more intuitive than others. On the Eastside, truncating Issaquah rail at Eastgate in a first phase would deliver the more valuable intra-Bellevue connections early while deferring the costly lower-ridership miles of rail along I-90. A Delridge terminus in West Seattle would serve critical connecting bus lines. An interim terminus at Smith Cove for the Ballard line seems underwhelming, but it recognizes that most of the ‘Ballard line’ ridership is in South Lake Union and downtown. Snohomish County will prefer a first phase of Everett rail extend to Paine Field rather than stop at Mariner though the latter is a promising bus terminus for commuters to Seattle. In the south, it’s not clear what advantage Fife has over Federal Way as an interim terminus, though the lower cost options for the South OMF-E require a 1.5 mile rail extension beyond Federal Way anyway. Local representatives may make different choices as they juggle Tacoma Dome Link against Sounder improvements.
Nancy Backus may have spoken for several Board members when she asked if each subarea could directly identify their priorities and have Sound Transit develop that scenario. The Board is visibly struggling to come up with a shared vision better than having each subarea move forward within their own particular financial constraints.
Given the large uncertainties about future revenues and costs, the phasing approach offers a politically palatable way forward. Sound Transit can make firm commitments to a limited set of extensions in every area with modest delays (some of which are already baked in as COVID has slowed environmental review by a year or more). Those can be supported with high confidence that they are affordable on a schedule close to the ST3 plan.
The secondary phases might face long delays if the current financial projections play out over the next two decades, but the delays may be reduced if enough funding is added or if cost savings are realized on earlier projects. As the Board grapples with the huge uncertainties in the out-years, there is no particular urgency for the Board to set firm dates on projects where work won’t begin for years anyway.