With transportation plans in flux, King County must address concerns about the cost and effects of selling its Convention Place transit station.
BEFORE consummating the sale of its Convention Place transit station in downtown Seattle, King County must clarify how the public would benefit and regional transportation impacts would be mitigated.
This is important because transportation plans are in flux, more land will be needed for transit and real-estate prices are surging.
Newly disclosed information suggests the sale will significantly increase transit costs.
The station is a major asset in a transit system that’s likely to be enlarged at great cost to taxpayers. It occupies a full block between Capitol Hill and downtown, with its own ramp to Interstate 5.
Under a deal proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine, the station would be sold for $147 million to the Washington State Convention Center. With interest, payments over 30 years would total $283 million.
The center has worked several years to develop a satellite addition on the site.
Expanding the center is a worthy project with long-term benefits for the region. The utility of Convention Place is also diminishing because it will be bypassed by light rail in the current tunnel scheme.
But the Metropolitan King County Council — which is expected to finalize the deal in early 2016 — must proceed with care and thoroughly explain how the public would benefit and transportation would be affected.
Extra diligence is needed because it’s risky to relinquish transit use on precious land before transit plans for the area have crystallized.”
Extra diligence is needed because it’s risky to relinquish transit use on precious land before transit plans for the area have crystallized.
King County acknowledges it must find a replacement bus site nearby but doesn’t yet know the cost. Also evolving are plans to improve transit in downtown’s north end.
County Council members should clarify several issues.
The selling price seems low for four acres downtown with I-5 access, especially in today’s market. As proposed, it would net $825 per square foot. Yet investors have recently paid up to $2,000 per foot for downtown development sites.
Also needing clarification are costs for a replacement bus facility. Convention Place is used for staging rush-hour buses serving the suburbs.
King County could have negotiated to include staging within the convention center, perhaps sharing its loading dock or on adjacent lots the center is developing for commercial use.
Instead, the county agreed to find a replacement staging area. It could spend $10 million or more buying or leasing this facility.
The county contends it’s a wash. If it preserved staging on the site, it would receive a lower selling price. But that’s unclear until there’s certainty about the replacement facility’s cost.
Councilmembers should also tally costs of closing Convention Place earlier than planned.
The station was scheduled to close in 2021, when light rail displaces buses in the tunnel, putting them onto clogged streets. The sale moves that up to 2019.
King County hired consultants to estimate costs of closing the tunnel for buses early. Looking at an even earlier closure, from 2016 to 2020, they figured it would cost the public $380 million — far more than the sale proceeds.
Breaking that down: Bus operating and capital costs would increase $79 million, they estimated.
They also estimated that buses would be so much slower on streets, it would cost passengers $295 million in lost time. The cost to drivers caught in resulting traffic was estimated at $5.5 million.
The study was labeled “final draft” and not disseminated until requested by this editorial board.
County officials say the study is now outdated and flawed. Costs could be lower because they’re working with Seattle to reconfigure downtown streets to favor buses and reduce transit delays.
Also, routes have changed and the tunnel closure is moving up two years rather than four, as studied.
Even so, these potential costs should have been disclosed earlier. The County Council needs a current estimate.
Thorough and public vetting of concerns surrounding the Convention Place deal is important. It’s also an opportunity for these officials to show they’re careful stewards of the public purse, before they ask taxpayers next fall to provide $27 billion for Sound Transit’s regional transit projects over the next 25 years.