CHOKEPOINTS

Sound Transit CEO: Voters have forgiven us for past troubles

Dec 22, 2016, 5:35 AM | Updated: 8:31 am
light rail Seattle, ST3, Pierce County, Sound Transit...
The Legislature came one step closer to forcing Sound Transit to lower car tab fees. (KIRO Radio)
(KIRO Radio)

Sound Transit likes to say it’s delivering projects “on time and on budget,” but the reality is the agency is behind on both counts and will likely never catch up.

But after the disastrous first 10 years, the agency has been much better with taxpayer money, and it plans to continue that trend.

Voters in 1996 were sold a bill of goods for the first Sound Transit plan. It promised a light rail line between Sea-Tac and the University District. The agency told voters it would get that done in a decade and for just over $1.5 billion.

Report: Sound Transit light rail loses more than $550K annually to fare jumpers

By the time that line will be complete, it will have taken 25 years and cost nearly $5 billion. The Seattle Times puts the overrun estimates at about 86 percent.

Despite that miserable start, voters approved Sound Transit 2 and, in November, they approved Sound Transit 3, giving the agency billions of dollars more.

Agency CEO Peter Rogoff says Sound Transit has its act together.

“People know that in the very early years of Sound Transit there were some serious problems and some commitments made that couldn’t be kept,” he said. “But our record for the last 15 years is frankly the envy of transit agencies all over the country.”

He says Sound Transit 2 projects, including light rail to Bellevue and Lynnwood, are running in the black.

“Right now, our so-called Sound Transit 2 projects in the aggregate are trending to be about 3 percent under budget,” Rogoff said. “So we take great care in how we plan out and budget for these projects.”

And Rogoff welcomes any and all criticism and scrutiny because he says he understands how important it is to be good with taxpayer money, especially so much of it.

“We’ve never really run this to ground, but we believe we may be the most audited agency in the state,” Rogoff said. “And we welcome that because this is taxpayer money and they need to know, with confidence, that it’s being spent wisely.”

Rogoff believes the public has finally forgiven Sound Transit for its more than rocky beginnings. He points to the last two successful votes and the ridership numbers he’s seeing on the University District extension, which is outpacing estimates.

“The difference between the commutes in a car by Capitol Hill versus getting downtown now in eight minutes or less is life-changing for many of these people,” he said. “And that is the kind of service we want to offer to people when we expand … which is what we will be doing in the years to come.”

But some of the heavy lifting is still to come, especially with line items that could push projects into the red and behind schedule. That includes a new tunnel under downtown Seattle, a new tunnel in Bellevue, and laying tracks on I-90.

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Sound Transit CEO: Voters have forgiven us for past troubles