With health, safety, elections and job security on people’s minds, it’s easy to overlook what’s happening in local government.
Yet residents of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties should catch up on what’s happening with Sound Transit.
They are paying dearly for one of the world’s costliest transit projects. It’s now facing massive budget shortfalls and deciding which long-promised features to delay and possibly cancel.
One opportunity to engage is during an online public hearing at noon Thursday, accessible via SoundTransit.org, when residents can comment on projects happening through 2025. Paul Roberts, an Everett City Council member and vice chair of Sound Transit’s board, will hear testimony and convey it to the board.
This annual reporting and engagement process is required by the Legislature, which authorized the transit tax district. It requires the agency to annually disclose how projects over the next six years will be funded.
Such transparency is important for an agency that stumbled badly during previous downturns.
Unfortunately, this annual reporting isn’t as rigorous as it could be. It has become a formality, a box the agency quietly checks every year, with little public engagement.
This is especially apparent this year, as the Transit Development Plan 2020-2025 — the subject of the hearing — doesn’t reflect recent changes to the agency’s work plan, finances and ridership.
Agency spokesman Geoff Patrick confirmed that “it’s not an updated reflection of our current fiscal landscape.”
With tax revenue and ridership plunging because of the pandemic, Sound Transit faces a shortfall of $7.1 billion to $11.9 billion through 2041, depending on how quickly the economy recovers. That’s up to 12% of its $96 billion budget.
In May, Sound Transit began scrutinizing its project list. Its board was briefed in June and last week, receiving details on about 18 projects that administrators paused to immediately reduce spending.
Formal budget revisions start in October, providing more opportunity for the public to comment.
Sound Transit also plans a more extensive public-engagement process, to take input on project “realignment,” starting this year and continuing into summer 2021. That will likely see intense lobbying, including by municipalities such as Seattle fighting to preserve spending in their locales.
Sound Transit isn’t halting current projects. That includes light-rail extensions to Lynnwood, Redmond, Federal Way and Tacoma’s Hilltop. At issue is the timing and scale of projects scheduled to begin in future years.
This ought to be an opportunity for a broad conversation about transit plans going forward, as Sound Transit decides which projects to delay and possibly shelve.
Growth is less certain than when Sound Transit 3 was approved in 2016. The workforce concentrated in downtown Seattle may also be redistributed.
The promised “spine” linking Everett, Seattle and Tacoma must be completed. The needs of outlying areas that paid heavily into the system with little investment in return must also be addressed.
But substantial revisions to Sound Transit’s work plan, including the current mix of rail and buses, may be needed.
Even before the pandemic, light-rail ridership was short of projections. From 2018 to 2019, total rides grew just 1%, to 24,761,684, according to the annual report. That’s well short of the 28,400,000 projected in last year’s report.
Since the pandemic, ridership fell as low as 13% of normal, Patrick said.
Meanwhile, there are scant details about what’s paused or at risk in this year’s report that the public is invited to comment upon.
The Transit Development Plan 2020-2025 does have a giant asterisk — a few paragraphs noting the pandemic and downturn will affect some projects — and cautions that it’s only accurate as of late 2019.
Uncertainty is a given, and everyone needs to show patience as people and organizations work through the current muddle.
But it’s still disappointing that a state law requiring additional transparency and engagement turned out to be toothless, and that Sound Transit didn’t use this opportunity to gather more input and provide more clarity.
Even so, concerned residents should review and comment on what’s in the works. Consider it the start of a vital, regional discussion.