Sound Transit finalized and voted to move forward with the realignment of the Sound Transit 3 program on Thursday. This day marks the end of an almost year-and-a-half long process of planning just how to delay projects so that the program remains affordable, and projects can be delivered.
Starting in early 2020 with dire projected COVID-19 impacts to revenue, Sound Transit immediately hit pause on projects not yet under construction when the agency seemed on course to run out of borrowing capacity in 2028. The tough early days of realignment were about expectation setting. Nothing was certain except that the ST3 program would not be completed on time. Getting the program back on track could require action as drastic as a five-year delay on all project. And of course, the pandemic itself made the public wary of transit just as we were about to begin a major expansion of Sound Transit.
From here, things got better and worse. It got better as the recovery from the pandemic started happening quicker than expected, and it got worse when the cost of the most expensive Seattle rail projects started ballooning out of control. Costs on the West Seattle to Ballard Link corridor rose more than 50%, driven by sharply increasing property values (notably including a 306-unit apartment building project that started after ST3 passed, but which Sound Transit did nothing about). Costs were rising to a lesser degree in other parts of the planned program, mostly due to rising property values and increasing construction costs. In contrast to expensive light rail projects, ST’s BRT projects saw little cost increases overall, and the projected cost of I-405 BRT actually went down, likely thanks in large part to ST’s smart decision to acquire land for I-405 BRT early, rather than wait. Things improved further with funding from the federal government, and Sound Transit’s embrace of a strategy of severely delaying parking to shield actual transit projects from the brunt of the impacts.
By mid 2021, thing were really stretching out, and some even wanted to extend realignment another year. But by then it was getting to the point that realignment itself was delaying projects as uncertainty remained on how to proceed. Finally, in June, ST board chair Kent Keel presented a near-final realignment plan that was affordable and integrated the project prioritization developed over the past year:
The plan itself was met with disappointment, frustration, and sadness as it was now understood more or less what the delays would be. Some were rightly wondering if the recovery would continue faster than anticipated, making some delays unnecessary, while others were noting that overoptimistic projections were what got us here in the first place. In an effort spearheaded by Claudia Balducci, the board developed an alternative plan that retained the same base schedule, but allowed projects to be accelerated if finances allowed. Tier 1 projects could be accelerated first, followed by tier 2 projects, and so on until all projects would just have planning delays of a couple years if revenue improved enough. This gave Sound Transit a flexible framework to plan projects around. There was a promise that ST was confident it could stick to, but also a realistic goal that it could achieve if revenues improve. This approach has been described as a tightrope with a safety net, a remarkable work of collaboration that left all parties feeling like they finally have something they can sign off on. And that brings us to today.
The board approved the base plan unanimously, and then approved a number of amendments. The Urbanist has a good detail overview of the amendments on their July 31 coverage of the process, but some of the highlights (and the lowlights) of the changes include the following:
- Acceleration of the ST3 infill stations from 2036 to 2031, and moving the N 130th St Station up to 2025. This brings all infill stations back to opening on the original ST3 schedule except for NE 130th St, which will open just one year after Lynnwood Link.
- Accelerating the NE 85th St and I-405 interchange by one year to 2026. Though not called out specifically, this would potentially allow the NE 85th St stop to open for ST Express routes 532, 535, and Metro routes before the rest of Stride is completed.
- Interim access to station which have delayed parking. This could mean additional connecting bus routes to some stations (some of which are in areas without much in the way of bus connections already), or microtransit options.
- Accelerated parking for Tacoma Dome Link, which would move parking at Tacoma Dome, Fife, and South Federal Way stations from 2040 to 2038. This would be paid for by delaying new South Sounder trips from 2045 to 2046. While not impacting the light rail line itself and leaving parking still delayed from the original ST3 plan, this is definitely a step in the wrong direction, and the one real disappointment of the day.
- A cost savings amendment put forward by Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan to review all types of costs as the ST3 program is executed.
With realignment behind us, it is now time for Sound Transit to restart ST3 with a new schedule and hard lessons learned. It’s a long road to completion, with the program wrapping up in 2046 (but hopefully sooner) with additional Sounder trips between DuPont and Seattle. But with any luck, the end result will be a robust regional transit system that gives people a real alternative to car ownership, and one that will last for generations to come.