Perhaps I should put an asterisk on my blog title. I’m not entirely sure if Sound Transit is bad at estimating costs associated with their pricey projects because I’m not entirely sure they don’t deliberately underestimate the cost of projects.
We learned in The Seattle Times that the cost to build light rail on I-90 has grown by $225 million, raising the total cost of seven miles of work to $712 million. It turns out, Sound Transit didn’t properly estimate the cost of the project and they deem this additional cost “fair and reasonable.” It’s not their money, so of course they do.
Yes, I understand that projects like this are major and there will be updated budgets. I also understand the difficulty in keeping the tracks buoyant over Lake Washington.
But it sure does seem like Sound Transit likes funky math and can’t estimate very well.
They pretend their projects are on budget when they’re woefully over. For example, they claimed the UW light rail station was delivered on time and under budget. That’s only true if you completely ignore the first 10 years of the project and forget the $3.35 billion in costs over the promised $1.67 billion. As the Seattle PI pointed out, the “tunnel-drilling project under Beacon Hill, at a contracted $279 million, is costing $26 million more than initially budgeted.”
Back in 2013, when Seattle Business Magazine took a deep dive into the Sounder, we saw a similar disaster:
Consider the 34-mile Sounder north line, which links Seattle to Everett. It was originally proposed as a six-train commuter service with six stops. But as costs shot up to $368 million from a projected $89 million, the agency cut back to four trains and four stations. About 1,100 riders use the line every weekday, far below the original forecast of 2,400 to 3,200 riders, for an average cost to the system of $330,000 per rider.
It gets worse: they change timelines for completing projects seemingly on a whim, they overestimate the value of your car so they can cheat you of more money, and they spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on tote bags and a party no one asked for.
So why do we keep seeing this trend from Sound Transit? Are they misleading the public on costs and timelines because it’s an easier sell and we’ve been awfully forgiving as it is? Are they really bad at estimates? Whatever the answer, the trend is troubling.