To complete such an ambitious light-rail project, it would take years for Sound Transit to collect the taxes, absorb citizen demands and deal with engineering challenges.

Share story

Update, Oct. 23: Timelines for some Sound Transit projects have been adjusted since this story originally ran in April. See our updated story for the latest estimates.

A few nights ago in Ballard, a crowd of 300 people booed and hissed when Mike O’Brien, their Seattle City Council representative, said the neighborhood might not see light rail for 22 years.

The same frustrations are simmering up north, where the draft Sound Transit 3 plan, aimed at the November ballot, would take 25 years to reach both the Paine Field industrial area and Everett Station. Elected officials there are making a counterproposal they say would cut eight years off the timeline.

In most regions of the country, when expensive proposals are unveiled — and this one would raise sales, property and car-tab taxes an average $400 per household per year — local politicians would brace for a tax revolt.

That may yet occur, but a more immediate threat for Sound Transit is disillusionment from the left. Urbanists, transit supporters and ordinary citizens are impatient.

“You’ve got a large voter base here,” said Mike Kahrs, a Ballard resident who stood up to question officials at the forum. “You’re going to put forth a package that would make us wait 22 years for service. Is that a wise decision?”

After years of encouraging people to demand light rail, Sound Transit has backed itself into a corner. To go big takes a very long time.

The $50 billion program offers 58 miles of light rail, including the Everett-Tacoma “spine,” spokes to Ballard, West Seattle, Issaquah and Redmond, a new downtown Seattle tunnel and a Paine Field loop, plus Sounder commuter rail to DuPont, I-405 and Highway 522 bus lines and park-and-ride spaces. It will take a quarter century to do all that, officials say.

New taxes to fund construction would arrive very gradually, over five decades. In Seattle, the east downtown tunnel and five underground stations would have to fit among building foundations and other tunnels. And in the Northwest, everybody wants to be heard before the dirt turns.

“We’ve tried to be realistic about what it takes to deliver the projects,” said Ric Ilgenfritz, the agency’s planning director.

The size is a function of political geography.

A shorter, faster plan likely wouldn’t reach enough communities — or allow for  enough colored route lines on campaign mailers— to attract support from the 1.7 million voters in  Sound Transit’s service territory.

To ask for still higher taxes, for the purpose of accelerating the plan, is forbidden by a cap in a 2015 state law, even presuming voters could be persuaded to dig deeper.

Public comment ends Friday, followed by a final transit-board vote in June on a final plan for the November ballot.

“We have a lot of people who want their project done first and want it done perfectly,” said Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff. He said the current version is workable, but that’s what the April barnstorming is about, to hear feedback.

“Bottom line is, it’s going to be important that folks not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Once we’ve worked it out with community partners as best we can, we need people to rally behind it,” Rogoff said. “When ballot measures fail, the next ballot measure brought back is smaller. Some projects in ST3, should it fail, may not be on the next measure going forward.”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Sound Transit, along with L.A. Metro, stands far beyond other regions in its ambition on this year’s ballot to focus growth around high-capacity rail, said Jason Jordan, executive director of the national Center for Transportation Excellence, which tracks pro-transit ballot measures.

Los Angeles voters this year are expected to consider a 40-year, $120 billion request for a sales-tax increase of which two-thirds would go for transit and one-third toward streets and highways.

Tom Rubin, a prominent bus supporter, and former chief financial officer at L.A. Metro, considers the Seattle-area rail timeline realistic. “If the question is, why would it take 25 years for Sound Transit to build out 58 miles of light rail, a better question would be ‘Why would anyone want to?’ ” he said.

The nonpartisan Smarter Transit, formerly the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, accuses politicians of ignoring a cheaper transit solution — bus-rapid transit — that could be implemented much more quickly to go beyond the Lynnwood Station, which will open in 2023.

Here are some reasons ST3 would need a quarter-century:

• Cash flow

Sound Transit 3 forums

The official public comment period ends Friday. Public forums have been held at Ballard and Tacoma, and five remain. Information, including project lists, appears at soundtransit3.org

Everett: Monday, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., including a 6 p.m. presentation, at Everett Station, 3201 Smith Ave.

West Seattle: Tuesday, at the same times, at West Seattle High School, 3000 California Ave. S.W.

Redmond: Wednesday, at the same times, Old Redmond Schoolhouse Community Center, 16600 N.E. 80th St.

Downtown Seattle: Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with a noon presentation, at Union Station, 401 S. Jackson St.

Federal Way: Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. with a 6 p.m. presentation, at Todd Beamer High School, 35999 16th Ave. S.

Similar to state highway funds, regional transit money is leveraged on the taxpayers’ credit card.

Rail projects already approved or completed are so expensive that principal and interest payments are scheduled to continue until about 2050, including obligations of $445 million a year during the 2030s. Existing taxes from Sound Move in 1996 and ST2 in 2008 are expected to cover about $9 billion of ST3.

And the agency can’t just sell bonds for the whole thing right away. Fiscal policies require that Sound Transit not commit to more than $100 in debt payments for every $150 of net income, after operating costs.

Chief Financial Officer Brian McCartan therefore must calibrate the start date for each track line and bond sale, so as not to get overextended in any given year. His full financial plan is expected in a few weeks.

Some transit boosters ask if cities, especially Seattle, could somehow offerlending capacity to Sound Transit. Whether that’s doable, and whether it would ravage other city services, is undetermined.

“It’s got to be part of the conversation,” said City Councilmember Rob Johnson.

The current ST3 plan assumes federal grants would cover 11 percent of the light-rail work, and any increase would reduce the need to borrow. Previously the feds approved $1.3 billion for the Tukwila-UW corridor and $1.2 billion for the Northgate-Lynnwood segment, both favorable signs.

Cost estimates for new projects need to be somewhat high because so little engineering has been done.

“You don’t really know what these things are going to cost until you have 30 percent design, so they’re going to be pretty conservative,” said Scott Rutherford, University of Washington professor of civil engineering. “If everything goes right, as on U-Link, you become heroes when you save $150 million.”

Then there’s revenue risk.

Following the 2008 ballot win, the recession and slumping sales-tax revenues led Sound Transit to break its promise of a north Federal Way light-rail stop by 2023. That station and points south are in ST3.

• Planning process

If there is any hope of saving time, Rogoff said, it’s in the preparation, not the construction.

Sound Transit says a major light-rail route has needed one to three years to study alignment options, an additional four to six years for environmental study and preliminary design, and two to three years for engineering.

Its $3.7 billion East Link line took eight years to advance from voter approval to Friday’s groundbreaking, and Bellevue service won’t begin until 2023, two years late. Transit and Bellevue officials didn’t propose a specific alignment until after the 2008 election, and they struggled over how to split the costs of a downtown tunnel that was added at Bellevue’s insistence.

A Sound Transit light-rail train heads over the Duwamish River in Tukwila during a training session in 2009. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
A Sound Transit light-rail train heads over the Duwamish River in Tukwila during a training session in 2009. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Everett-area officials insist huge delays are unnecessary.

In their counterproposal last week, they suggested placing the northernmost three miles next to I-5 instead of along Evergreen Way, reducing land costs and disputes.

“Wherever two or more are gathered in Snohomish County, there in the midst will be opposition to the ST3 2041 schedule,” said County Executive Dave Somers, a transit-board member.

Everett Councilmember Paul Roberts said his experience in siting Boeing aircraft factories, and the experience of other officials, prepares them for light-rail planning. The north line’s aerial trackway is straightforward to engineer and build, Roberts said, as proven at Tukwila and SeaTac.

“We know how to do this stuff and we have a team assembled to do it. We are going to figure it out,” he said.

Over in West Seattle, a proposed elevated route (instead of a tunnel portrayed as one possibility last year) may trigger lengthy study and complaints about bulk, as with the smaller, unbuilt Green Line monorail in the early 2000s.

• Difficult engineering

The University District, where the station is due in 2021, shows how unforeseen technical challenges can cause delays.

After it was approved on the 1996 ballot, cost estimates and schedules exploded following discovery of boulders under Portage Bay. The solution required a completely new route below Montlake Cut.

In the case of Ballard in ST3, that distant 2038 goal is driven mainly by the complexity of building a tunnel through downtown, uptown and South Lake Union. A second Westlake Station would be built just east of and below the existing transit hub — while trains operate nearby.

That’s the latest feature to make Link light rail more expensive than other Western light-rail programs, including Portland MAX. Sound Transit is building four-car stations to meet capacity far beyond current needs, along with miles of soft-ground tunnels, and unique pivoting rail joints on the I-90 floating bridge.

A tough question for Ballardites is whether a tunnel under Salmon Bay, requested by community groups, would take more years to deliver than the 70-foot-high train drawbridge currently proposed.

For now, transit staff and consultants haven’t even estimated how long it might take to tunnel under Salmon Bay, because it would eliminate any chance to fund a West Seattle line, said spokesman Geoff Patrick.

Attempts to save money can backfire, as City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw hinted in a speech to the Ballard crowd.

“Every bridge has a cost as well; you have to buy more property, you have to be sure there are easements,” she said.

Councilmember Johnson cautioned that even 24-hour-a-day construction wouldn’t do much to speed the project.

Johnson, who isn’t 40 yet, joked about the underlying assumption “that everybody in this room will be dead in 22 years, but we’ll all be alive in 19 years.”