Sound Transit must still sign a formal grant agreement with the Federal Transit Administration before the agency can access the money, or the $100 million that the FTA reserved for Lynnwood last year.
The Federal Transit Administration has allocated $100 million for Sound Transit’s project to build light rail to Lynnwood, the second straight year the federal government has reserved money for the project, and a signal that Trump administration iciness toward transit funding could be thawing.
The money — the newly awarded $100 million, plus $100 million from last year — is not in Sound Transit’s pocket yet. The announcement means that the FTA has set aside the money for the Lynnwood line, but Sound Transit can’t use it until it finalizes a formal grant agreement with the federal government. But that agreement could come fairly soon as well.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said Friday he’s “more optimistic than I’ve been in a year” that the agency will have a finalized agreement with the FTA by the end of 2018. Rogoff said he spoke with acting FTA administrator Jane Williams on Thursday about the final steps needed to get a full-funding grant agreement signed.
Those include routine negotiations on contract language and review periods for the Office of the Secretary of Transportation and the Office of Management and Budget, Rogoff said.
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In total, Sound Transit is seeking nearly $1.2 billion in federal money for its line from Northgate to Lynnwood, which is now tentatively scheduled to open in mid-2024 at a cost of $2.8 billion to $3.2 billion.
Costs of the project have soared by at least $300 million, as Seattle-area real estate and construction bids have spiraled ever higher. The same pressures have caused cost estimates on Sound Transit’s light-rail line from Angle Lake to Federal Way to jump $460 million, to a total of about $2.5 billion. That project is also seeking federal funding, a decision that could come next year.
Rogoff said he viewed the new FTA allocation as a turning point in the Trump administration’s approach to transit funding.
For a time, the FTA money was in greater jeopardy, because the Trump administration has twice proposed scrapping federal aid to transit megaprojects entirely, on grounds that transit is a local matter. But both houses of Congress voted to preserve FTA grants, keeping Lynnwood in the pipeline.
“The administration played it straight up, they put it in writing that they were not executing new full-funding grant agreements and they were reviewing the whole program top to bottom,” Rogoff said in an interview. “It appears now that that review is complete.”
He said the Trump administration favors communities that largely fund projects with local dollars and that Sound Transit’s level of local funding — 84 percent of all projects — is higher than most.
“That has appeal for them,” Rogoff said.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has been urging the Trump administration to follow through in disbursing the grants authorized by Congress.
“While there’s still more work to do, this is a major step in the right direction,” Murray said Friday in a prepared statement.
The announcement makes it more likely that Sound Transit will gamble and start signing construction deals before a full grant agreement is reached with the FTA.
Rogoff mentioned that possibility earlier this year, reasoning that delays and inflation are riskier than breaking ground before the federal money is in hand.
He said Friday that no decision has yet been made, but he’s discussed with Williams getting a “letter of no prejudice” from the FTA. That would allow Sound Transit to be reimbursed for money spent on the project before it secured a funding agreement.