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Sound Transit estimates soar and trains start running to Northgate

It’s time to catch up with Sound Transit. There has been a lot of news — both good and bad — for the agency over the last few weeks.

First, the good news. Light rail trains have started making the trip between the University District and Northgate. You might have noticed the trains on the elevated tracks approaching Northgate Station this week. These are the first test trains to run the tracks as Sound Transit prepares to open the line to the public in September. Sound Transit says this expansion is opening on time and on budget.

But the budget elsewhere is not in good shape. We have been reporting for years that the Lynnwood extension expected to open in 2023 was running half a billion dollars over budget. The cost of buying property along the alignment blew original estimates away. Sound Transit has now eaten those costs and absorbed them.

The same thing is now happening for the extensions to West Seattle, Ballard, and Tacoma.

Skyrocketing property values is being blamed for a nearly $6 billion increase in costs for those expansions, promised under ST-3. The expansions to West Seattle and Ballard have ballooned by $5 billion alone, while the Tacoma expansion is now projected at $1 billion over budget.

Sound Transit’s board will have some tough decisions to make on alignments this year, including whether to build more tunnels on these projects or run the trains at grade, and where future stations should be placed.

An independent consultant will begin scouring the books next month and report back in April.

The one overarching concern in all Sound Transit news is when will people return to transit out of this pandemic, if they ever do in the numbers forecasted. Sound Transit ridership was still off more than 80% at of the end of November. CEO Peter Rogoff told a group earlier this month that riders need to realize that trains and buses are safe, as long as people are masked up and following the rules.

“There is a lot of, frankly, mythology out there indicating that transit is somehow a super-spreader venue or something along those lines,” he said. “The data is really quite different, especially if we have universal mask use.”

There have been some national studies that suggest transit is safe, but it’s going to take more than a few studies to regain confidence from riders. Rogoff said he hopes all local transit agencies come together for a PR campaign to push the safety of trains and buses.

“As the lid comes off a little bit in terms of what the state advises us to do on staying home, probably a coordinated marketing plan on the part of the transit providers of the region to get people back and that it is safe to come back,” Rogoff said about what may be needed to boost ridership.

Sound Transit said last year that it expects an $6 billion to $12 billion dollar shortfall in forecasted revenue over the next 20 years and that it could be out of cash by the end of this year. The agency gets 50% of its funding from sales tax revenue.

All the projects that are currently under contract, like the expansions to Lynnwood, Bellevue, Redmond and Federal Way are not impacted by the expected shortfall and are still on schedule.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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