Seattle must not bigfoot Sound Transit 3 planning or hinder the transit authority’s primary mission, building a fast-transit spine connecting Tacoma, Everett, Seattle and the Eastside.
The megaproject just missed a key deadline, potentially threatening its schedule, because of Seattle politicking over light-rail routes, tunnels and stations.
Under a new Sound Transit work plan, designed to prevent additional delays and overruns, the board was supposed to have already chosen preferred routes for extensions to Ballard and West Seattle. This should have been done at its May 23 board meeting, but Seattle officials insisted on further consideration of multiple alternatives, including options that together could cost $2 billion more than budgeted.
City leaders need to explain, quickly, how they would fund breathtakingly expensive extras they’re considering and why that’s the best use of limited resources.
Choosing preferred routes are difficult decisions that test the agency’s governance model, with a board mostly comprised of city and county leaders. They must prioritize the regional need for high-performing transit, as promised to voters for a certain cost, while taking into account local concerns about project impacts and lobbying
Board members from suburbs, and Pierce and Snohomish counties are rightly concerned that Seattle members, including Mayor Jenny Durkan, Councilmember Debora Juarez and King County Executive Dow Constantine, are building expectations by dangling options that could take longer and cost far more to build.
Bellevue board member Claudia Balducci said an upcoming environmental review should clarify the multiple choices left on the table. She believes time can be saved in the review process, if leaders make firm decisions next year.
Meanwhile, Sound Transit’s core promise, connecting regional cities, won’t be done until perhaps 2036.
Extras Seattle is considering include tunnels instead of bridges in West Seattle and Ballard; a more complex to build and less convenient to use Chinatown-International District station; and costlier routes in the Sodo industrial area. Besides billions in cost, they could complicate and delay ST3 work.
Such extras won’t increase ridership, increase connections to the spine or connect regional centers with high-capacity transit. “They’re not part of the core priorities,” Everett City Councilman Paul Roberts said during the May 23 board meeting.
Roberts was among regional leaders who voted to sharpen the focus of environmental reviews, by prioritizing Seattle routes for further study. They were voted down by Seattle and King County representatives. That leaves more options on the table. It also preserves the option of squeezing Seattle to fund the extras. Either way, Seattle gets the same level of train service.
This happened before, on a smaller scale, when Bellevue sought an expensive downtown light-rail tunnel. After negotiations and delays, Bellevue and Sound Transit agreed to a shorter tunnel and split the cost, with Bellevue contributing $100 million worth of land and services.
After that lesson, the agency insists Seattle come up with funding for any extras beyond the voter-approved ST3 plan.
That’s good policy for Sound Transit but raises big questions for Seattle and potentially King County residents. Should they pay more than they already do for ST3? If they can afford another tax increase, or have public assets to barter, should they be used to supplement a transit project that has ample funding for everything it promised?
Seattle residents already pay more per capita for transportation projects than anyone in the region, through several special taxes and fees, according to a transportation tax capacity study the city recently commissioned.
There’s a long list of unfunded community needs, including overdue street, sidewalk, bridge and bike projects, plus schools, parks, libraries and other infrastructure that hasn’t kept up with growth. But average citizens and basic needs don’t have clout like the powerful lobby of giant construction firms, consultants and unions advocating for transit spending.
As Seattle politicians like to say, Sound Transit must get it right. We agree.
Getting it right means delivering what was promised on time and on budget, making hard choices to balance local and regional needs, and maximizing transportation benefits for 3 million residents in Sound Transit’s tax district.
Corrected: The city of Bellevue contributed $100 million toward its downtown rail tunnel. A previous version of this editorial, corrected May 31, 2019, incorrectly stated Bellevue had contributed $400 million.