Before making further commitments to rent pricey Seattle office space, Sound Transit’s governing board should explore options for less expensive and more regional offices.
Sound Transit must do a better job at explaining and justifying its leasing of expensive Seattle office space.
The regional transit authority this year signed leases for downtown Seattle office spaces that will cost taxpayers $90 million over the next four to five years. A fourth of the space will be occupied by consultants, who should be paying for their overhead.
Remember, just a few months ago, it was revealed that Sound Transit’s Lynnwood extension is $500 million over budget. This doesn’t exactly assure the public that the agency getting a lion’s share of the Puget Sound’s tax revenue is being frugal.
As reported by the Times’ Mike Lindblom, the agency paid market rate to expand into posh office buildings around its Pioneer Square headquarters. But the market happens to be one of the more expensive in the United States.
With decades of funding lined up, Sound Transit’s governing board should consider whether it’s appropriate to further extend leases for such expensive digs.
For offices that will be occupied for years to come, it may make more sense for Sound Transit to own its own buildings. This is especially the case for an agency that owns a lot of premium, developable land around the region.
The board discussion should also address Sound Transit’s long-term administrative plans. Will the administration grow with the transit system, or can it scale down after the surge of design and construction? Will it become mostly a contracting agency, collecting taxes and hiring county transit agencies to operate its system, or will it operate the system directly?
An overarching goal should be to find efficiencies and reduce regional duplication, so more transit spending goes to service and less to administration.
Meanwhile, the board should evaluate the cost and benefits of adding administrative offices on property the agency owns, including maintenance facilities south of downtown Seattle and one planned for Bellevue.
The Bellevue facility seems particularly suited for administrative offices. It’s located in the Spring District, a mixed-use development that will include REI’s new headquarters.
Instead of the low-slung maintenance complex now proposed, Sound Transit could increase the size and height of offices on the site.
The agency could also take several floors in the office and residential towers that it is encouraging developers to build at one end of its Bellevue site. Renderings show buildings up to 12 stories and capacity to develop 1.2 million square feet.
Sound Transit plans to seek development proposals for the site next year. Construction could potentially be done in 2023, just as Sound Transit’s leases in Pioneer Square expire.
Why not structure the developer deals to provide free administrative offices in the new buildings on Sound Transit property?
Otherwise, Sound Transit will continue paying a fortune to office developers in Seattle while offering prime, public property to developers in Bellevue. That’s not what taxpayers expected to fund.
Expanding into areas outside downtown Seattle would also walk the talk for a transit program that’s supposed to be creating new opportunities to live and work around the region, without having to pay top dollar to cram into Seattle.
Even ardent supporters of Sound Transit should be concerned about its administrative spending. Sound Transit’s board needs to better explain why leasing is the best use of transit dollars. Exploring less expensive and more regional options is also an opportunity to demonstrate that it’s a careful steward of public funds.