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Sound Transit Board fracturing over ST-3 budget delays

Columns going up in Mountlake Terrace, part of the Sound Transit light rail extension to Lynnwood. (Chris Sullivan, KIRO Radio)

The Sound Transit Board appears to be fracturing over plans to delay many ST-3 projects because of a huge budget deficit caused by the pandemic and resulting recession. Some board members say there is no need to rush to make cuts.

Light rail service to Northgate begins in October

The Sound Transit Board is working on a plan to delay or phase many key promises of ST-3, like light rail extensions to West Seattle, Ballard, Tacoma and Everett. They are expected to have the plan ready by July.

The reason for this plan? The pandemic and recession gutted Sound Transit’s tax revenue forecasts. But here’s the thing: Those forecasts have been getting better, much better. At one point, the funding gap was as much as $11 billion. Now, it’s down to $7.9 billion.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told the board they don’t have enough information right now to make such huge decisions.

“We don’t know how much each one of those projects will cost,” the mayor said. “We don’t know why the costs have exploded. We’re waiting for that report. I don’t understand how we can responsibly make some of the decisions we’re asked to make in the timeframe we’re made to do it.”

There are scenarios where projects promised under ST-3 could be delayed two years, six years, nine years, or even more than 10 years. Mayor Durkan said that would be disastrous.

“We are barreling toward making a decision that is probably one of the worst decisions we can make as a board for the region and for climate,” she said.

King County Executive Dow Constantine also wants to tap the brakes on the process.

“Understanding that we’re right on the precipice of better, clearer, more solid information, is there something we’re missing by just going ahead and adopting something that delays the whole program, as opposed to considering so-called realignment during the budget process later this year when we’ll have better information,” he told the board.

Sound Transit staff members are expected to have the list of what projects will be delayed and for how long next week. Then the board is expected to vote on the proposal in July.

But King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci is working on her own plan to revamp this entire realignment process. We have not seen it yet, but it would push off this decision until later.

Mayor Durkan wants to see that plan before moving forward, and she told the board that the focus should be on delivering the projects that voters approved, not automatically looking to delay.

“We are making decisions that will effect the health of this region for the next generation,” she said. “We owe it to ourselves to do that in a very responsible and methodical way, with the default presumption being that we are going to get this d— thing built as quickly as we can so we can get people riding on it.”

These proposed cuts or delays in ST-3 projects do not include those already under contract, like light rail to Lynnwood and Bellevue.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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