CHOKEPOINTS

Sound Transit charts its path ahead facing $6.5 billion budget hole

Aug 5, 2021, 8:43 PM | Updated: Aug 6, 2021, 5:25 am

sound transit...

A worker stands near a lift, Tuesday, June 29, 2021, as he works on a future Sound Transit light rail station near Federal Way, Wash., south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Sound Transit now has a schedule and some strict guidelines to follow as it prioritizes what to build and when. Seventeen months of work on realignment ended with a unanimous vote from the board on Thursday afternoon.

The pandemic took a huge bite out of Sound Transit’s funding, and rising property values just made the balance sheet look worse. At one point during the pandemic, the budget deficit reached $11 billion. With the economy coming back and sales tax revenues increasing, that deficit has nearly been cut in half, but finding $6.5 billion to fill the current hole isn’t easy.

Sound Transit Board fracturing over ST-3 budget delays

The decision was made to look at the projects promised to voters and see where money could be made up. Would projects be scaled back? Would they be delayed? What criteria would be used to make the schedule?

Board chair and University Place council member Kent Keel knew it would be an uphill climb.

“My goal throughout this whole process has been to be transparent with our citizens and to manage our affordability gap in a manner that is responsible and prudent, based on the realities facing the agency,” Keel told the board meeting.

“Affordability gap” is how Sound Transit refers to the budget shortfall.

The Sound Transit Board promises to build what voters approved as fast as it can, without breaking the bank. If a project is found to be running well into the red, the board has the ability to stop it from moving into final design. The board does not want over-budget projects to impact the building of the projects next in line.

“Are we asking ourselves, ‘can we afford this final design contract in front of us today, or will this contract put us over our financial plan in a way that impacts future projects?'” King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci asked in discussing amendments to the resolution.

Balducci helped design this hybrid approach. Projects with high ridership expectations are at the top of the list, and projects that can be built for less money move to the top as well.

For example, Sound Transit has moved up the completion of a new light rail station at 130th from 2036 to 2025. In-fill stations at Boeing Access Road and Graham Street will be moved up from 2036 to 2031. Other projects, like light rail to Ballard, which is way over budget estimations will be pushed back to 2039 from 2035. Downtown Everett will be pushed to 2041 from 2036. All projects are facing 2-10 year delays. A lot of promised parking is also being pushed off.

The positive in adopting this flexible model is that projects can move up and down the tiers depending on current financial conditions.

“Whatever we vote on today and whatever we vote on again when we keep revisiting these issues when we try to close that affordability gap, these are not set in stone,” Seattle Councilmember Debora Juarez told the meeting.

The resolution makes sure the board is keeping a better eye on the real-time budget realities. It will also push Olympia and Congress for better funding.

But Keel knows that the real heavy lifting is still ahead.

“Now we have a framework before us,” he said at the close of the nearly three hour meeting. “This framework keeps the faith with the voters, with the plan that they approved. It sets target dates and keeps those promises in the forefront of our work.”

By the way, light rail to Northgate is scheduled to open in October. Light rail to Bellevue is set for 2023, and Lynnwood,  Redmond and Federal Way in 2024.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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