More than fourteen months after the onset of the pandemic here in the Puget Sound region, Sound Transit is close to deciding on a course of action to address its pandemic-related financial challenges.
To recap: as the pandemic recession dragged on while housing costs skyrocketed, the agency had to adjust its planning to account for billions in lost revenue and decreased ability to use debt to fund its transit expansion projects.
This revenue deficit made it impossible to deliver the voter-approved Sound Transit 3 package on-time and on-budget without new money.
In response to this massive “affordability gap” — currently estimated to be around $8 billion over ST3’s lifespan — Sound Transit began a process known as “realignment”. Essentially, without new money or cost revisions, realignment is how some projects are prioritized and others delayed.
The last time I reported on the realignment process here on The Cascadia Advocate was after a February 2021 board meeting.
Then, the affordability gap was quoted to be much higher, at around $11.5 billion.
That has fortunately been revised down to $8 billion due to the quicker-than-expected economic recovery. But that’s still a very large gap.
Elected officials from across Snohomish, Pierce, and King counties, along with WSDOT’s Roger Millar, sit on Sound Transit’s board and are tasked with making realignment decisions. Board Chair Kent Keel wishes to make a final decision on realignment by this summer, but with nearly twenty public officials not in agreement about how to proceed, the process has been far from easy.
Discussions over what to do about realignment reached fever pitch during a special board meeting on June 3rd. Memorably, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan quipped that “we are barreling towards making a decision that’s among the worst decisions we could make as a board for the region.”
She was not wrong.
The early June realignment proposals call for hefty delays across the board. Equity-advancing Link stations at NE 130th Street and S Graham Street, and a key light rail extension to West Seattle, are among the Seattle projects facing delays of ten years or more. More egregiously, there significant uncertainty about the size of the affordability gap. $8 billion is just an estimate; as the economic outlook improves, and if more federal dollars are secured, it will continue to shrink.
Why commit our region to decades-long austerity-inspired anti-climate delays to core infrastructure when it might not even be fiscally necessary?
Yet there is another group of board members who do want to make a decision soon — preferably by the July 22nd board meeting.
These are primarily representatives from Snohomish and Pierce counties, including Board Chair Kent Keel (University Place), Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith, and Everett Councilmember Paul Roberts.
Residents of these communities feel that they have been paying for Sound Transit service, but that the biggest and flashiest projects (like Central Link and its extensions) have been disproportionately concentrated in King County.
After decades of delay rooted in ST2-era deferrals to key projects, their elected officials are sensitive to anything that could threaten their projects.
The Everett Herald’s Jerry Cornfield pointed this out last month. These members would rather have large delays that protect expansion, because delayed decisions might result in cancellations down the road if anything changes.
Following the July 22nd timeline, Chair Keel unveiled his revised plan for realignment during the June 24th board meeting.
It’s still not a good proposal, but it could be worse.
Tier 1 projects are considered to have no financial delay, with the only delays having resulted from pausing progress during realignment.
There are many important projects here, which is good. Tacoma will be connected all the way to Everett by Link (although it will only reach South Everett), forming the fundamental backbone of the network. West Seattle will receive service. The Eastside will see Bus Rapid Transit to relieve congestion along I‑405.
Critically, it prioritizes extending the network as fast as possible over spending money on parking structures. This forces agencies to use transit to move people to and from suburban light rail stations, which is a lot more climate-friendly.
Tiers 2, 3, and 4 consist of projects where funding to continue does not currently exist, hence the need to wait longer. Disappointingly, the important infill station at Graham St along MLK is slated to be delayed significantly. Mayor Durkan warned about this delay last month, and it is still not resolved. From KUOW:
“I think we are barreling towards making a decision that’s among the worst decisions we could make as a board for the region.”
As an example, she mentioned the Graham Street Station, where multiple stakeholders have invested in housing to help meet address Seattle’s affordable housing shortage.
What would a six year delay in construction of that station mean for access to jobs by people moving into that housing?
Put off by these serious delays, King County-area board members and community members want to delay the decision-making until there are clearer revenue projections. Executive Dow Constantine and Councilmember Joe McDermott (who represents the 8th District) have raised timing concerns in the past.
And public comments delivered by a plethora of King County-area organizations, including the League of Women Voters, asked the Board to delay its actions until they know more about its fiscal future.
No one has been more vocal than Councilmember Claudia Balducci in calling for the board to hold off. Why rush to delay, she asks.
Since May, Balducci has been working with ST staff on an alternative realignment schedule that prioritizes sticking to the original voter-approved timetables.
Speaking in reaction to Keel’s proposal this week, she said “it is important for us to look at an alternative that would lean into schedule more. There is no magic — we have to find ways to decrease cost or increase funding.”
Balducci made clear that she will need a few more weeks before she can share a complete, costed alternative realignment proposal with the rest of the board.
Unfortunately, other boardmembers don’t want to wait for that work to be finished. The rest of the board members who chose to speak at the June 24 meeting were mostly from Snohomish and Pierce counties and they resoundingly thanked Keel for his compromise solution.
Keel asked board members to submit any final suggested changes to the realignment proposal by July 8th, two weeks after the meeting.
A vote to approve the Keel’s realignment initiative, in whatever final form it takes, could come as soon as July 22nd, less than four weeks from now.
Much of the politicking and maneuvering that influences decisions like these happens outside of Sound Transit board meetings. You can reach out to your representatives on the board to let them know what you think about the proposed ST3 project delays. Act now, because important decisions are on the verge of being made that could affect our region for decades to come.