When Sound Transit successfully sought a record $54 billion tax package to finance eight light-rail extensions, more commuter rail and bus rapid transit in 2016, the agency’s supporters called their campaign Mass Transit Now.
They chose that slogan even though some rail lines won’t open for another 11 to 22 years.
Traffic Lab recently asked readers what they’d like to know about Puget Sound transportation, and the most popular question came from Timothy Chang: “Is it possible to speed up the construction of light rail? If so, how?”
Construction schedules of five to 10 years are typical for major transit projects in the U.S. and Europe, and can’t be compressed much, as Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff has often said. In the Seattle area, planning and engineering take just as long. The best way to speed light-rail delivery may be for politicians and community members to unite early on easy-to-build routes.
The Sound Transit 3 schedule calls for trains in Redmond and Federal Way by 2024, Tacoma and West Seattle by 2030, Ballard in 2035, Everett in 2036, and Issaquah and South Kirkland in 2041.
The line to West Seattle already faces risk of delay. Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and neighborhood groups insist on tunnels to avoid concrete trackway overhead, but lack a plan to raise at least $700 million to cover the extra cost.
If funded, the drilling would push completion beyond 2030, Sound Transit reports say.
King County Councilmember Joe McDermott of West Seattle has argued that taking longer might be OK.
“The light-rail alignment we build now will serve us for over a century,” he said. “We need to make sure we do it right, not just faster.”
On the other hand, residents have been paying Sound Transit taxes since 1997. People stuck in traffic gridlock might say that transit delayed is transit denied.
Here are some strategies that could deliver projects sooner.
Find more money
Sound Transit is already among the highest-funded transit agencies in the country.
It anticipates spending $96 billion in taxes, fares, grants and loans from 2017-41 to finish and operate a 116-mile light-rail network, plus bus lines and Sounder trains, to serve 700,000 daily passengers.
Even more money could speed up some projects, but voters who now pay around $650 a year per median household in Sound Transit taxes wouldn’t necessarily approve another spending measure.
The agency assumes the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will continue providing federal grants that cover about 16% of light-rail construction costs.
Rogoff, a former FTA chief, says to increase Sound Transit’s federal share, “there would need to be a game-changer,” such as a bold national infrastructure plan. LA Metro has suggested a 25-cent increase in the federal gas tax for that purpose.
The most promising place where more money could accelerate work is Snohomish County, the least-wealthy of five Sound Transit budgeting areas. Stations at West Alderwood, Ash Way and Mariner would reach low- to middle-income apartment clusters where commuters endure some of America’s worst traffic. But the agency must wait for cash to pile up before financing the work.
The Sound Transit 3 plan delays those three stops until 2036, bundled with Paine Field and Everett into one humongous 16.3-mile undertaking.
More money for the Ballard-to-West Seattle corridor likely wouldn’t bring quicker delivery, and might even cause delays by encouraging options that take longer to build, such as drilling through West Seattle or rebuilding the Fourth Avenue South viaduct to tuck a second International District/Chinatown Station below.
The long wait for the Ballard line’s completion in 2035 is less about cash availability than the engineering challenge to drill new tunnels under Westlake Station and the Highway 99 tunnel’s north portal.
Los Angeles shares Seattle’s schedule anxiety. Its $120 billion ballot measure approved in 2016 spreads projects over 50 years, to match cash flow.
Directors in LA have since published an “early project delivery strategy” to accelerate work if private lending, easy property takeovers, or extra local-government or landowner money become available.
LA Metro asked Congress to lend it $30 billion through the FTA. That fizzled, but now it’s asking Congress to authorize bonds at zero interest cost to transit agencies. That would “ignite” $200 billion in work nationwide, said Raffi Hamparian, senior director of government relations at LA Metro.
Congestion-pricing tolls could conceivably be used for transit projects someday in L.A. or Seattle, but neither region has proposed a specific plan.
Politicians sometimes mention public-private partnerships as a wellspring of money.
Sound Transit hasn’t solicited partners yet, but private developers might someday help underwrite new stations co-located with housing and commercial projects, said spokesman Geoff Patrick. Or investors could finance park-and-ride garages that make money through parking fees.
Rather than looking for more revenue, Sound Transit has played defense lately against Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976, which seeks to slash car-tab taxes to a flat $30, and proposals by state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, to reduce ST3 car-tab rates.
“I think with less money, things will definitely go slower,” said Kelsey Mesher, advocacy director for Transportation Choices Coalition. “Funding is always at risk.”
Reduce planning time
Vancouver, B.C., TransLink enjoys a two- to three-year advantage over Seattle when permitting transit projects because an environmental checklist and consultation with First Nations are sufficient, CEO Kevin Desmond said.
TransLink’s upcoming $2.9 billion, 10-mile elevated route through the south suburb of Surrey is an example. TransLink says it can complete the environmental review, outreach and design in a mere 15 months with a goal of starting service in 2025, assuming provincial and federal money is released.
In the U.S., years are devoted to more detailed environmental-impact statements before most design and construction follow. The reports are required by state and federal law, and can fend off lawsuits by proving that an agency examined project alternatives.
Sound Transit tried to jump-start Ballard-to-West Seattle planning in 2017-2019 by convening five layers of forums and committees — a process that encouraged block-by-block critiques of the impacts.
After spending $33 million on analyses and outreach, the transit board failed to settle on a preferred alignment to study by the self-imposed deadline of May 23.
The board voted for a mixture of routes and stations, varying based on whether additional money can be found within Seattle. Members promise they’ll identify funding and a leading option by late 2020.
Rogoff defends the process. “We’ve done a good job of smoking out what the major concerns are,” he said.
For example, the Port of Seattle outlined how trackway or construction might obstruct maritime business at Harbor Island and Fishermen’s Terminal. Those comments reduce the risk of a time-consuming dispute later, he said.
On the other hand, agency staff say if the board fails to choose a preferred alternative for further engineering by early 2021, the project could lose 18 months or more.
Seattle has formed a fast-track permitting team led by policy strategist Anne Fennessy, a longtime Sound Transit consultant. But the city won’t save time unless elected leaders solve the fundamental revenue and route questions.
Speeding construction is not everyone’s top priority.
“We don’t want to sacrifice quality planning for the sake of having light rail one year faster,” Mesher said. “Some of the costs are you don’t engage communities and they get displaced.” She pointed to I-5 construction six decades ago that “cut communities in half that have never been stitched back together.”
Carole Turley Voulgaris, engineering professor at Cal Poly, said hasty planning correlates with delays and cost overruns during construction. But voter satisfaction matters, too, in states like Washington that rely on ballot measures to fund projects.
“If there’s a project they voted for, and they don’t see the fruits until 20 years later, it could make things more difficult, when [agencies] go back to the public for funding,” she said.
Now that people are riding light rail, and see it as necessary, politicians should feel emboldened to complete the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma spine quicker, said Ron Sims, former King County executive and former transit-board chairman.
“I would change the cultural mindset the agency has about planning and seize the opportunity,” he said.
Buy land sooner
Sims said the agency last decade took too long to acquire land for light rail. He conjectured that securing property earlier would increase transit leaders’ sense of urgency.
“Everything gets tied up, because the alignment isn’t secured,” Sims said. “Go out and get it.”
Prime land at the future Alaska Junction Station in West Seattle is occupied by two banks, a parking lot, and a now closed oil-change shop. The property could become harder to get if landowners apply at City Hall for redevelopment.
Cathal Ridge, Sound Transit’s central corridor director, acknowledges the risk of missing underdeveloped property, but says he can’t condemn property until FTA approves the environmental-impact statement, except in rare circumstances.
Tacoma is keeping its main light-rail project on track for 2030 by agreeing this spring with the Puyallup Tribe and Pierce County on preferred routes approaching Tacoma Dome Station. It helped that there were only a few realistic options, said Mayor Victoria Woodards, a transit-board member.
“It feels like we’re almost there,” she said.
Redmond prepared since 2006, by uniting around elevated tracks downtown that fit among new six-story apartments, said Mayor John Marchione, the current transit-board chairman.
“We helped move it from 2038 to 2024. By getting ready for it, we helped Sound Transit engineer it and get it built faster,” he said.
Snohomish County governments and businesses formed a coalition to solve alignment puzzles early, even though the Lynnwood-to-Everett line is not promised until 2036. Local governments will try fast-permitting techniques used to bring Boeing’s 777 factory to Paine Field, said Everett Councilmember Paul Roberts, a transit-board member.
“We still hold out hope of shaving one or more years off of that,” Roberts said.
The 67-year-old Roberts said he’s come to terms with the multigenerational effort to build light rail across the region. When trains finally turn toward downtown Everett, he said with a chuckle, he could be at rest within Evergreen Cemetery below.