NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, June 25th, 2021

After a year of debate, Sound Transit moves closer to sanctioning ST3 project delays

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.

Keel proposal

Sound Tran­sit Board Chair Kent Keel’s pro­posed realign­ment sce­nario, pre­sent­ed dur­ing the Board of Direc­tors meet­ing on June 24, 2021. (Image: Sound Transit)

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. 

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