The budget bill in Congress keeps funding available for huge transit projects, such as a $1.2 billion contribution for Sound Transit's Northgate-to-Lynwood line to serve 68,500 riders.
This likely means Sound Transit’s proposed 8.5-mile, Northgate-Lynnwood line can qualify for a $1.2 billion Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant, to finish construction by mid-2024.
An estimated 68,500 daily riders are expected to board the trains, which provide an option to escape some of the nation’s worst highway delays. Trains from Lynnwood would reach the University of Washington in 20 minutes, or downtown Seattle in 28 minutes.
Meanwhile, the former $2.4 billion Lynnwood project estimate has risen to $3.1 billion, reflecting increased financial risk and strains.
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Lynnwood isn’t specifically named in the “omnibus” House-Senate compromise budget issued Wednesday night. But the project was a leading contender and approved by the FTA for final engineering. The bill contains $2.64 billion for major grants nationally, an increase from last year, and is to be spent mostly within two years. It requires that grants be distributed in the usual way, which previously delivered more than $1.3 billion to Sound Transit’s existing light-rail network from Husky Stadium to Angle Lake Station in SeaTac.
Transit is a blip on the $1.3 trillion national spending bill. (The House approved the bill Thursday and passed it to the Senate, where passage was assured, The Associated Press reported.) Trump sounded less than enthused, tweeting late Wednesday: “Had to waste money on Dem giveaways in order to take care of military pay increase and new equipment.”
The office of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the transit language “great news,” along with a clause sustaining $1.5 billion in TIGER grants available to local road, freight and transit agencies, and $1.3 billion for Amtrak. A $250 million fund would help railroads pay for positive train control, a satellite-based network to avert crashes. “I’m glad my colleagues joined me in rejecting President Trump’s attempt to curtail investments in these programs, and I will continue to fight for critical infrastructure investments that make a real difference to families and communities,” Murray said in a statement.
The spending bill also raises the odds that Seattle will secure another $25 million for its First Avenue streetcar link, and $61 million for Madison Street bus-rapid transit. Federal Way light rail is also in line for a possible $499 million. The Swift bus-rapid transit line from Paine Field to Bothell’s Canyon Park area is nominated for $50 million.
Sound Transit sent a grant application recently for $1.2 billion from the FTA. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the budget bill bodes well, “but we can’t declare victory” at this point. The FTA would release $100 million per year.
Yonah Freemark, author of The Transport Politic blog, tweeted Wednesday night the bill “probably” means Lynnwood and a Minneapolis project will win funding.
Trump’s budget summaries in 2017 and 2018 called for canceling new grants, on grounds that transit is a local issue and should be paid by local taxpayers. In a related dispute, the administration refused to contribute to replace the Hudson River tunnel between New Jersey and New York.
Lynnwood Link’s $3.1 billion figure is about $700 million more than in 2016, when the project started final design. In another change, the project also assumes $658 million in low-interest federal loans. Federal grants would arrive in yearly installments, to continue past 2019.
Seattle’s land and construction inflation drove costs up, but Sound Transit and the cities of Seattle, Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood also caused “scope creep” by requesting more station land for bus and car access, and amenities such as festival plazas. The agency acknowledged a $517 million cost increase last year.
The FTA requested another $170 million in contingency funds be added as a cushion against overruns, for a total $526 million in contingencies. (Lynnwood Link manager Rod Kempkes reported finding $190 million in possible trims this winter but those haven’t been tallied to reduce the official $3.1 billion total.)
Even now, the FTA warns that Sound Transit’s “capital cost estimate is optimistic” and gives Lynnwood a medium-low rating in that category. Sound Transit has the nation’s top credit rating and massive cash flow, while scoring high for local plans to increase housing density around stations.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff dropped hints of a rising budget on the Seattle Channel and in an American Public Transportation Association news conference this week, saying the feds would need to cover only “38 percent” of Lynnwood costs. Formerly the ratio was 50 percent, but the FTA dollars remain unchanged.
Voters approved the Lynnwood corridor in 2008, but planning has dragged for years. Politicians claim they want to speed up future Sound Transit 3 lines, but there’s little evidence yet that they’ve tamed the lengthy “Seattle process” to solicit, study and fund community requests.