Letter from Claudia Balducci, Dow Constantine and Jenny Durkan to the Sound Transit board:

One year ago, in 2020, the problem the Board was tasked to address stemmed from a massive revenue shortfall due to a pandemic-induced recession; now, the overwhelming problem is unforeseen cost increases. With this change, we may need to reevaluate our approach. Are the assumptions that led to cost increases in the evaluated projects likely to lead to increases in the remaining realignment portfolio? What has been the average cost increase in recent projects? How should the agency approach a cost-related gap differently than a revenue-related gap?

The concern is that projects will get unnecessarily delayed while the tax revenue shortfalls end up being less severe than expected. I see where they’re coming from, but it’s hard to see how more delay gets projects delivered more quickly.

Reading between the lines, and judging by the signatories, the letter seems like an effort to keep the board from prematurely punting Ballard and West Seattle too far out into the future. Especially since the second downtown tunnel – another priority shared by this trio – fares well in most phasing scenarios.

32 Replies to “ST board members want more time for realignment”

  1. Would really like to see some discussion of an income tax to pay for this, let’s stop asking the poorest of us to shoulder most of the burden for public works projects. It’s shameful that we haven’t done this already; the lack of even a moments thought to an income tax is really disappointing. PLEASE!!

    1. It would have to be the state that establishes an income tax, and it would use it for non-transit purposes because transit is low on the state’s priorities. ST can only enact taxes the state has allowed it to. Any income tax would go to court because opponents argue it’s unconstitutional.

      1. They don’t argue it is unconstitutional. It undeniably is unconstitutional. 1933’s Culliton v. Chase has been reaffirmed multiple times, including less than two years ago (it was referenced by the Court of Appeals when they shot down Seattle’s income tax attempt). We can complain to the heavens, but there is little to no chance Culliton v. Chase will be overturned in our lifetimes. State Supreme Courts are very reluctant to overturn prior rulings, and this one has returned to the courts so often that overturning it would be a judicial headache as each prior ruling eventually returned to them for clarification.

  2. “ Reading between the lines, and judging by the signatories, the letter seems like an effort to keep the board from prematurely punting Ballard and West Seattle too far out into the future. ”

    It appears that there is a strong difference of opinion of what to do on the Board in general. I view asking for delays as a way of admitting that consensus isn’t possible now.

    Wrapped up with this is concern about where both ridership and revenue will land as we get further from the pandemic. That uncertainty may be a factor.

    I view it as a good thing. Link in 2025 will be radically different than today. Models help project the future, but they don’t have the gravitas on many levels as much as a daily reality does. Seeing if the extended freeway fingers of ST2 are valuable will set the tone about future ST3 projects outside of Seattle — as well as what we need for better core distribution within Seattle’s core (SLU, Ballard and West Seattle).

    1. I agree. I think a delay is mostly about lack of consensus, rather than jockeying for a specific outcome.

    2. There is strong agreement on the board to not prepare and disclose the financial planning documents that would show how much taxing, spending, and inter-subarea transfers would take place over the course of the ST3 program (which will extend into the mid-2050’s, because of all the new debt the board recently agreed to sell).

      Sound Transit is run like Enron. It keeps its books hidden to shaft the public.

  3. From the letter:

    Sound Transit has engaged a third-party consultant to conduct an independent assessment of the drivers of cost increases and make recommendations for cost containment. This process remains underway. Importantly, the Board has not yet taken any steps to try to mitigate or control project cost increases prior to making widescale programmatic changes via realignment. More time and analysis are clearly necessary to address cost increases.

    Sounds like they want to see if they can get this stuff done cheaper. Hopefully we can fix this, since we are spending too much on subpar transit.

    1. Hopefully the consultants aren’t too tied to the existing paradigm. An intriguing idea I’d like staff/consultants to look into would be to switch WS-Ballard to 2-car operations. The line wouldn’t be interoperable with 4-car lines, but could use the same rolling stock so would still yield the system-wide synergies in OMFs, sourcing, driver training, etc.

      With 2-car trains, the stations would be roughly half the size. In the tunnel, that will make for significantly smaller station vaults, and in WS and Ballard that should allow for the stations to fit within the existing street grid rather than looming above (or below). Since the 2nd tunnel would serve only the 2-car line, it could double the frequency to 3-minutes, thereby maintaining the same total capacity through downtown as the representative ST3 system and use the same total fleet size.

      1. Hopefully the consultants aren’t too tied to the existing paradigm.

        I agree. I like the 2-car plan, which would be similar to SkyTrain (smaller trains, running more often during peak). As it is, our two car trains carry quite a few people, and for a West Seattle to Ballard run isn’t likely to be full running every six minutes, let alone three. (It could be full after a hockey game, but the monorail as well as local bus service should help in that regard).

        I would go further in terms of considering other options. A bus tunnel that could be converted to rail offers the best short term transit improvement. It would help riders from Ballard, West Seattle and the downtown stations much sooner than any other alternative. For many, it would be better than the completed project (as they avoid a transfer, or take advantage of the better frequency). Capacity would be similar to rail, simply because you would have plenty of buses going through. Of course there would be level boarding for the buses, and off-board payment (like a real BRT system — at least in the tunnel). After the rest of it is completed, the buses would be kicked out, and the trains would run through (no joint operations).

        Building in that order would be only a tiny bit more expensive in the long run, but you would get a substantial benefit much sooner.

      2. Yeah the pitch could be boiled down to “Build Skytrain, but with Link vehicles” to leverage our existing rolling stock since the incremental OMF will be in Federal Way, not Seattle.

  4. How refreshing. It’s good to know that somebody in power understands that this is a cost (and design) problem and not a revenue problem.

    Finally someone has looked through the preferred alternative and realized what Sound Transit is planning to build…e.g. this monstrosity: https://oohwsblink.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/images/Delrdige_Dakota-section-02_t-1.jpg
    https://oohwsblink.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/images/Dakota-St.pdf

    That’s the preferred alternative–that’s the design that is guiding all of the decision making right now. And as long as realignment keeps leading to the draft EIS keeps getting delayed we’re stuck operating on the assumption that we’re going to move forward with the existing mess of a design.

    Release the DEIS, fix the preferred alternative, get the new cost estimates, THEN worry about “realignment” (if it is still even an issue by then). Thank you Dow. That’s exactly what the board needs to do.

    1. I don’t know why they don’t revisit the Pigeon Ridge Tunnel. If the west portal were right across Delridge from Genessee, this huge taking in Youngstown would be eliminated and the Link bridge would be several blocks from the construction site when the damaged bridge is finally replaced.

      1. I agree. The Pigeon Ridge Tunnel is a good microcosm of the problem with current ST3 planning. First, the Board was told that the tunnel was “too expensive” and removed it. Then the Board was told that the cost differences between aerial and subway aren’t as drastic as they were originally told and that land purchase is a huge cost problem (specifically in Youngstown). If that is the case, then the tunnel should obviously be added back into the alternatives.

        More broadly, I feel like the senior staff has been effectively pushing the Board to make the choices that senior staff wants. At its core, the approach is to not challenge the ST3 preferred alternative unless significant pressure is applied.

        It’s kind of shocking really. Senior staff should be more interested in constantly improving the future system rather than justifying their past “tracks”. I really sense there is a “bad seed” somewhere at ST and it needs looking into. Maybe this triple-headed delay coming from key Board members rather than senior staff is noteworthy.

      2. I think ST senior staff are trying to hide the fact that the preferred alternative is unfeasible and the main purpose of realignment is to get the scope changed prior to the release of the draft EIS. They’ve been incredibly slow releasing the draft EIS–I think because it’s going to make them look bad. We’ve already seen enough from their previews to know that the cost of the WSBLE is going to be astronomical and the partial or modified scenarios are pretty bad (Delridge to Smith Cove LOL).

        I’m not quite sure what the long game is — perhaps ST wants to punt on most of WSBLE and do the easy stuff like BRT and the infill stations. But WSBLE is the signature ST3 project in Seattle and I’m happy to know that Dow is looking out for it.

        The Pigeon Ridge tunnel doesn’t solve the issues in the Junction but it certainly should have been advanced to the DEIS.

  5. Delay is great for boardmembers. They’ll get to harvest tens of billions of dollars of additional tax revenue to fatten up contracts to their friends and real employers (Seattle, Bellevue, King County, and so on).

    They treat middle class residents like sheep to be shorn. They love using their limitless regressive taxing powers to cause financial harm. Delay producing tracks and stations but haul in tens of billions more tax to buy patronage? Constantine loves that, and Balducci thinks it’s great too.

    Meanwhile they are ignoring the ST3 financial planning requirements (five financial plans with certain information, one for each subarea, to be updated annually and reported by the board).

    Sound Transit is a tax harvesting machine, and we can’t hold it to any reasonable standards.

    1. @Paul W. Hey, just a quick reminder we have a comment policy here. Please stick to one alias.

      If you’re going to keep harping on this long-debunked pet theory about five subarea financial plans, it’s really obvious you’re the same dude who pushed this nonsense under other names.

      1. ST3’s financial policies that voters approved require that the board establish five financial plans, one for each subarea:

        “The Financial Plan for Sound Transit activities addresses this equity principle by providing a financial plan for each of the five Sound Transit subareas, comprised of the subarea’s share of local taxes, debt capacity, farebox proceeds and an assumption for federal funding.”

        https://st32.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/Document%20Library%20Featured/8-22-16/ST3_Appendix-B_2016_web.pdf

    2. Delays make ST look bad, anger constituents, and reelection campaigns, harm the cities the politicians live in, and make it harder to pass the next ST package or tax increase. You’ve asserted but not proven that there’s some deep relationship between boardmembers and contractors that makes the former funnel money to the latter above all other considerations. Asserting it doesn’t make it so.

      1. Delays don’t hurt reelection campaigns because the boardmembers are appointed.

        Delays help the cities in the district because it means their contracts from Sound Transit are larger.

        Delays are great for contractors because they’ll take vastly inflated amounts later over smaller amounts now.

        The deep relationship between boardmembers and contractors is in front of our faces: TCC leaders are appointed to be deputy mayors and deputy county executives, and TCC members fund boardmembers’ reelection campaigns.

      2. They are all elected officials, but none of them are elected to the board. It might as well be a hobby for them. No one votes based on the performance of ST. They vote as to whether they are good at their (main) job.

      3. “Delays help the cities in the district because it means their contracts from Sound Transit are larger.”

        But they hurt the cities because tens of thousands of people are stuck in buses in unpredictable traffic for longer, and the buses are less frequent and unreliable. These are the people who vote for the mayors, councilmembers, and county exececutives who are appointed to the Sound Transit board. And the lack of a robust and reliable transit circulation system hinders the cities’ economies from reaching their potential, which is the responsibility of these elected officials. So you’re saying that officials are voluntarily shooting themselves in the foot and risking unelection in order to give fat contracts to contractor buddies. You haven’t even established that such a strong relationship between the officials and vague “contractors” exists.

      4. The board members I have worked with certainly don’t consider this a hobby.

        Sound Transit seems very relevant to the political campaigns for the county executives, and several Seattle councilpersons have built their brand around their ST involvement; 130th station exists pretty much only because it was politically relevant for north Seattle council races.

      5. I’m not saying they are terrible on purpose. I’m saying there is a very little political price paid for the board members incompetence.

        Look at Joe Nguyen. He is running against Dow Constantine. You would think, given the fact that Dow was on the board when all of these blunders happened, he would make that a focus of his campaign. Nope. Not a word. Nothing about how “He will fix Sound Transit” because no one runs on Sound Transit. Its not their main job — it might as well be a hobby.

      6. I guess I come down somewhere between hobby and sideline job. Some board members have certainly treated the gig like a hobby. Former ST board member and Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s board meeting attendance record comes to mind, just as one example.

        Also, because these are politicians at the end of the day, with few exceptions they only own the agency’s successes and never own their role in the agency’s long list of failures and blunders.

        Speaking of which….

        These three board members who submitted the aforementioned letter all signed off on the agency’s latest financial plan included with the annual budget for 2021 just last December. Then in January of this year, the Deputy CEO Kimberly Farley dropped the bomb on the board in her memo detailing the financial disaster brewing within the agency’s ST3 capital plan. This was just a matter of weeks after the conclusion of the 2021 budget cycle that, again, the three signatories put their stamp of approval on. We aren’t exactly dealing with profiles in courage here.

        It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. Will other board members join in and garner a consensus for postponing realignment 3.0?
        We shall see.

        Finally, just to remind readers here where things stand with the agency’s financial plan:

        2017 Financial Plan, 2017-2041 (the first full agency plan after passage of ST3)-

        (All figures in millions of YOE$)

        Bond proceeds $13,822
        TIFIA proceeds $3,320
        —————————-
        Debt service exp $12,118
        Bond reserve exp $977
        TIFIA debt serv exp $2,491

        2020 Financial Plan, 2017-2041 (the plan approved with the 2021 budget)-

        Bond proceeds $17,795
        TIFIA proceeds $3.320
        —————————-
        Debt service exp $14,895
        Bond reserve exp ??*
        TIFIA debt serv exp $2,045

        This latest plan is out of balance by $2,745M even with use of all unrestricted cash balances and the whopping increase in bond reliance.

        *ST did not break out bond reserve contributions separately as it has done in the past. On this latest document, ST consolidated O&M, R&R and DSRF expenses into one figure, $1,543.

      7. I guess I come down somewhere between hobby and sideline job.

        Yeah, I want to be clear that I don’t think any member treats it like a hobby. I think they all take their responsibility very seriously. The problem is, they don’t have enough time to actually learn about the issues, as they all have more important jobs.

        My point is that from a *political* standpoint, it might as well be a hobby. Dow Constantine may like playing with model trains. He may be terrible at it. But no one is going to vote for him or against him based on that. For the most part, Sound Transit board membership is like that. The one exception is when board members push for a project in their district. This means from a political standpoint, their actions on the board are either irrelevant or pork barrel. It is about as bad a setup as you can imagine.

  6. I can’t help but wonder if there’s not a massive amount of spending by ST padding the pockets of everyone involved to soak up as much money as possible. Is there any regular oversight on what exactly it’s being spent on, or any incentive to control budgets within the agency?

    Some observations from riding the light rail that makes me wonder:
    – It seems they change light rail drivers nearly every time the train goes by the transit center. Is a full day for a driver 2 hours?
    – We seem to have the only light rail system in a major city that can’t have an all night train because the tracks need maintenance every night. Why?
    – There is some sort of track outage practically every day (I get the alerts). Do the tracks really break on a daily basis? What is going on?
    – The escalators are broken down more than any I have seen anywhere in the world. Where did we get these things? Is this just an attempt to keep someone busy so they can collect a large paycheck? The Westlake Center escalators have been broken for weeks now.

    Having lived and used light rail in several large cities around the world, it just seems like Seattle has vastly more repairs and other costly things going on than any other system I have seen.

  7. Mike Orr I believe raised this letter in yesterday’s article and linked to it. If I were on the Board and ST gave me cost and funding estimates that varied by billions of dollars over 12 months– five years after ST 3 passed — I would want a third party to look at ST’s calculations too.

    “Reading between the lines, and judging by the signatories, the letter seems like an effort to keep the board from prematurely punting Ballard and West Seattle too far out into the future. Especially since the second downtown tunnel – another priority shared by this trio – fares well in most phasing scenarios.”

    IMO just the opposite. If the Board had to decide today it would have to at least “defer” Ballard and West Seattle. The Board might be made up of politicians but they are not stupid: I can’t imagine that anyone on the Board trusts the numbers and estimates they are getting from ST, and of course suspect the motivation for the disclosures at this time, and have no idea how to close multi-billion dollar funding gaps.

    I am beginning to think the solution is to cancel the second transit tunnel.

    First, I don’t think the other subareas have the extra $181 million each for the new cost estimate of $3.65 billion compared to the original cost estimate of $2.2 billion (assuming the total cost is $3.65 billion), and N. King Co. does not have the extra $725 million for its 1/2. Other subareas did not get costly tunnels they did not pay for themselves (and Bellevue really should have run a tunnel under Bellevue Way if other subareas were chipping in).

    This would then reallocate $181 million each to four subareas and $725 million to N. King Co., in addition to their original contribution toward the original estimate of $2.2 billion, to finish ST 3 projects in their subarea, and to address first/last mile access.

    The original sales pitch for other subareas pitching in for the second transit tunnel during the campaign for ST 3 were : 1. It would cost $2.2 billion with Seattle paying 1/2; and 2. the second tunnel would be necessary to meet capacity for the spine and East Link, which we now know is not true. The second tunnel is for West Seattle and Ballard.

    The actual cost to complete such a complex tunnel is unknown. You can’t ask the subareas to pledge a blank check, for a project that does not benefit them at all. IMO the cost estimates for West Seattle and Ballard rail will rise faster than extending completion will increase revenues, and I still think ST is lowballing the funding deficits and increased costs in the N. King Co. subarea.

    Seattle could elect to run surface rail down Third Avenue like many Seattleites proposed for Bellevue Way or Kirkland or Tacoma, or it could go to buses for West Seattle and Ballard and run those along 3rd Ave. A HB 1304 levy for Seattle only would be staggeringly expensive to complete the tunnel and cost overruns for W. Seattle and Ballard, for not that many riders (which is the problem for most of the spine).

    I understand the argument that it was “unfair” to require Seattle to pay to run light rail to the Snohomish Co. border and to South King Co. when that probably does not benefit N. King Co., and running expensive light rail through areas of nowhere to nowhere doesn’t make much transit sense compared to using the money to fund rail to Ballard, UW or West Seattle, but that ship has sailed.

    The total cost of a second transit tunnel and rail to West Seattle and Ballard is over $10 billion. Does anyone think that is the best use of $10 billion in transit dollars throughout the five subareas?

    The real trick going forward is how to provide any kind of first/last mile access to 90 miles of light rail in some pretty undense areas so transit does not worsen after spending so many billions on light rail, and to not bankrupt the system by building the second tunnel. I would think spending $10 billion on the nitty gritty first/last mile access is the better expenditure.

    1. Yes, the letter writers are trying to save WSBLE and they are certainly well aware that the design is going to have to be modified. That’s why they want to push ahead prior to doing the realignment, otherwise the flawed preferred alternative is going to be used for the realignment decision making.

      There’s no way that the second transit tunnel gets canceled. A $3.65 billion pricetag for such an undertaking is worth every penny. The SR-520 bridge replacement is costing $4.5 billion. That’s just what it costs for a significant transportation investment and the tunnel is certainly going to be needed. The project has to happen.

      The challenge is how to scale the cost down without compromising on the “West Seattle to Ballard” portion of the line. Multimodal bridges? At-grade rail? Infill stations? That’s what they want to figure out prior to doing any realignment.

  8. “There’s no way that the second transit tunnel gets canceled. A $3.65 billion pricetag for such an undertaking is worth every penny. The SR-520 bridge replacement is costing $4.5 billion. That’s just what it costs for a significant transportation investment and the tunnel is certainly going to be needed. The project has to happen.”

    As long as the north King Co. subarea pays for any costs above the original estimated cost of $2.2 billion I have no objection. And I never suggested the tunnel would end up costing $3.65 billion; just that $3.65 billion is the best estimate at this time if all goes well, although ST has been tight lipped about new tunnel costs.

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