County leaders caution Sound Transit plans for light rail could fall ‘victim to local interests’

Aug 5, 2021, 5:07 AM | Updated: 11:27 am
light rail expansion...
A light rail station is virtually empty at rush hour due to coronavirus fears on March 12, 2020, in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

On Thursday, Aug. 5, the Sound Transit Board will convene and vote on proposed realignment plans to ST2 and ST3, the light rail and commuter rail expansions originally approved by voters in 2008 and 2016, respectively.

A variety of factors — including the rising cost of real estate in the Seattle metropolitan area and a brief construction pause brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic — have led to a $6.5 billion affordability gap. As a result, further delays to construction timelines for planned light rail expansions are on the table. That would potentially include pushing the completion of a planned West Seattle light rail addition originally scheduled for 2030 out to 2032.

Sound Transit Board fracturing over ST-3 budget delays

To address this gap, the Sound Transit Board has proposed two realignment resolutions: one that concedes delays to address that gap, and another that works toward the original target dates with the affordable schedule as a “safety net” in the event that cost saving measures are not identified, which allow for the original dates to be reached.

Projects currently under construction, including light rail extensions to Northgate, Lynnwood, Bellevue, Redmond, Federal Way and Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, as well as the Puyallup Sounder garage, will not be subject to realignment.

In a joint press release on Aug. 4, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers and Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier called on the community to contact Sound Transit in affirmation of an amendment that would help keep light rail expansion into Pierce and Snohomish counties on schedule.

The statement reads, in part:

We ask residents who want a truly regional, equitable and environmentally sustainable mass transit system to support Snohomish and Pierce Counties’ amendment #5 and contact their Sound Transit Board Members to urge them to vote for it. We want to work with the members of the Sound Transit Board to ensure our region’s voices are working together to complete this historic project.

The proposed amendment codifies that no individual projects will cause further delay to the proposed affordable schedule.

“The Board will not authorize final design, rights-of way acquisition, or construction expenditures on any individual project which would cause delay to the Affordable Schedule for other projects unless the project’s funding gap has been offset,” the amendment reads.

Presumably, this is to protect the core of the light rail from potential additions that might drive up the affordability gap.

“The vision of completing the regional spine is again threatened by those who want to provide expensive add-ons that were never approved by the regions’ voters,” reads the executives’ statement.

Sound Transit hits ‘exciting’ milestone as it wraps up work on Northgate light rail stations

The language of the resolution’s section, which Amendment 5 affects, concedes the possibility of the “affordable schedule.” However, it also allows for flexibility in project completion dates in the event that affordability gap is partially reduced.

“Schedule assessments based on available agency projected financial capacity and subarea affordability as well as project readiness will occur during project development to determine if projects can continue to progress on the Initial Target Schedule or if the Affordable Schedule is needed. If the affordability gap is partially reduced, staff will assess whether a completion date between the Initial Target and Affordable Schedules is affordable and achievable,” the amendment reads.

The amendment allows for the construction of projects existing outside of the scope of the original ST2 and ST3 plans. However, it affirms that funding for the light rail “spine” from Tacoma to Everett will remain secure.

“By sticking to the voter approved ST3 projects, this amendment wouldn’t prevent another area of the region from securing state or federal funding for elements that were not in the ST3 package (e.g. tunnels, additional stations, parking garages, etc.). The amendment will protect funding needed to build out the spine from Tacoma to Everett, while allowing counties, cities or others to raise money for any extra additions,” the statement claims.

The Sound Transit Board meeting where these plans will be finalized is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Aug. 5. Public comments will be accepted, and the meeting will be live streamed.

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County leaders caution Sound Transit plans for light rail could fall ‘victim to local interests’