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Sound Transit’s dilemma: What to delay, cut, or scale with $11.5 billion hole

The elevated tracks running through Northgate. (Sound Transit)

Sound Transit has an $11.5 billion hole in its budget to finish ST-3, approved by voters in 2016. The board will have to make some tough choices of cutting projects, delaying projects, and other ways to make up the gap. It also wants the public’s help in deciding on priorities.

Light rail service to Northgate begins in October

We’ve spent the last year discussing how badly the pandemic and resulting recession hit Sound Transit’s funding. Buying land and building massive projects is also getting a lot more expensive. Now comes the time to make serious decisions about what to do about it.

It’s what Sound Transit calls realignment.

Geoff Patrick, Sound Transit Deputy Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs, said the first move the board will make is to reach out to the federal government for funding options. But those potential federal dollars will only go so far. Even if they improve the bottom line, Patrick said they won’t fill the gap. Tough choices will have to be made.

It’s likely that Sound Transit will have to delay some, if not all, projects. It could also reduce projects or build them in phases.

For example, even though ST-3 promised light rail to Everett, Sound Transit could start by going halfway. It could build to Mariner High School in phase one and then complete the line to Everett in a second phase. This is just a hypothetical example, but it highlights potential ways to provide new service while pushing the entire expansion schedule by a few years.

That’s where the public comes in. There is a survey underway through the end of the month looking for feedback on what the Sound Transit board should do.

“The board will look to the public to help guide decisions about how to realign our capital program, our plans and schedules for expansions happening after those currently under construction to bring our program back into alignment with fiscal reality,” Patrick said.

All comments and feedback are welcome.

“If a certain project is important to someone, that’s what we want to hear,” Patrick said. “If there are certain tools, like say, for instance, getting all the way there instead of building in phases, if someone has that view, we would take that or anything that’s on people’s minds.”

This affordability gap, as Sound Transit calls it, could go up or down later this week. A new financial forecast is coming out Thursday.

This funding issue does not impact the projects already under construction. Light rail expansions to Lynnwood, Federal Way, Bellevue and Redmond are all going forward, with expected completions in 2023 and 2024. The Puyallup Sounder garage and Tacoma Hilltop project are also good. It’s the expansions to West Seattle, Ballard, Tacoma and Everett that are in potential jeopardy.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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