Lawmaker wants to give voters power to kill transit projects

Mar 31, 2017, 7:12 AM | Updated: 9:31 am
A state senator wants voters to have the option to end transit projects that are over budget. (KIRO Radio)
(KIRO Radio)

State Sen. Phil Fortunato is the latest lawmaker in Olympia who has set his sights on Sound Transit with legislation aiming to place considerable checks on the transit agency.

“Without periodic checks, how would we stop this?” Fortunato (District 31) told Seattle’s Morning News.

Related: Should naming Sound Transit stations really be this difficult?

What Fortunato proposed is a Senate bill that will place timed restrictions on transit agencies and their budgets. It strongly speaks to Sound Transit as the agency plans for future light-rail projects.

It is the latest in a series of bills that target the transit agency, many of which address car-tab fees.

Fortunato vs. transit projects

The bill is basic: Every two years, if a project is over budget, then it goes back to the voters who will decide if it should be completed or not. Initially, Fortunato proposed that if a project is 20 percent over budget within two years, that would cause it to head back for a vote. He said that figure received some push back.

“They were all whining and complaining,” Fortunato said. “So I said, ‘I hear your pain. I am simply going to amend it. If 20 percent isn’t enough, how about 100 percent?’ If you are 100 percent over budget, at some point in time you got to pull the brake cord on the train.”

There may still be bonds to pay off if that happens.

“You are also not going further, and further, and further into debt,” Fortunato said. “This is actually a protection for bondholders.

“Remember, theoretically, [Sound Transit is] not going to send out $54 billion right now in bonds. They are going say this piece of the project is $6 billion; they are going to put $6 billion worth of bonds out there. What would happen if they used up that $6 billion and they didn’t complete the project? Wherever it is, that is where they will have to stop. They can put up another vote to see if they finish.”

Fortunato said his skepticism around Sound Transit’s rather large aspirations stems from Washington’s own history and experience with big projects.

“I keep calling this WPPS 2,” he said, in reference to the Washington Public Power Supply System from decades ago. It was a system of nuclear power plants that financially failed and defaulted on its bond. It has colloquially been pronounced “whoops.”

“You now have five nuclear power plants started all at the same time with much the same pitch: ‘This is going to reduce electrical costs,'” Fortunato explained. “They start going through the project and pretty soon the cost overruns were so ridiculous, they only finished one plant and had to shut the other four down.”

That’s a risk for Sound Transit and its projects. The cost of building light rail between Seattle and Bellevue, for example, recently increased by $225 million. That amounts to the project being 46 percent over budget.

Related: By 2017 you won’t be able to use the I-90 express lanes

“You haven’t even started that piece of the project – seven miles of rail – which is now $100 million a mile,” Fortunato said. “You have no more contingency because you used it up on engineering before you even started. What happens when you actually start the project? You will be over budget.”

Fortunato’s concerns go beyond budgeting.

It’s obviously no secret that Fortunato is not a fan of Sound Transit or light rail goals. He told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross that he believes the form of transportation will be outdated in the near future. He also has serious doubts regarding the safety of light rail — and it’s not just about security on the trains.

“Is everybody that gets on this train that goes over that bridge, going to have to take the Marine Corps. underwater helicopter escape course to figure out what happens when that train falls off the bridge during an earthquake?” he asked about the I-90 expansion.

The bill just left the committee process where it went through some changes — mainly the requirement that an agency needs to be 100 percent over budget before voters can pull the plug. It will be now considered by the Senate.

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Lawmaker wants to give voters power to kill transit projects