Sound Transit board members clapped and hooted with relief when they passed a “realignment” plan Aug. 5, ending months of tense discussions over which projects to delay in response to a $6.5 billion shortfall.
They broke corridors into affordable parts, so light rail might reach Seattle Center by 2037, two years later than advertised in the 2016 Sound Transit 3 ballot measure. Tracks to Fife and Tacoma are due in 2032, also two years later. The board accelerated Seattle’s Northeast 130th Street station along I-5 to open in 2025, while keeping Graham Street Station, serving the city’s diverse and lower-income southeast side, on schedule for 2031.
Still, trains to downtown Everett won’t arrive until 2041 — five years late and a full 44 years after residents began paying regional transit taxes in 1997 — unless the agency finds an additional $602 million within Snohomish County.
At the urging of Claudia Balducci, a Metropolitan King County Council member from Bellevue, the agency didn’t surrender hope of delivering stations sooner. The board published an alternate “target schedule,” that restores many projects to their voter-approved timelines, if the agency solves its money woes.
“Now the real hard work begins,” said Balducci, who heads the transit board’s system-expansion committee. She’s looking to outside experts and national research for ideas to build quicker and trim costs.
The U.S. Senate last week passed a $1 trillion infrastructure plan in which Sound Transit might win more money to ease the $6.5 billion shortfall.
Delays would inflate the bottom line — to a staggering $131 billion between 2017 and 2046 for present and future projects. The full Sound Transit 1, 2 and 3 programs feature a 116-mile light rail network and would serve at least 750,000 daily passengers.
We asked readers for their questions about how Sound Transit is managing the financial shortfall. Here are some questions and answers.
Will the light-rail lines to Lynnwood and Federal Way still be finished?
Yes. Major construction and finance contracts are signed, the Lynnwood line is nearly 50% built, and both extensions remain on target to open by 2024. East Link from Seattle to Bellevue and Overlake will open by 2023, followed by downtown Redmond in 2024.
Has Sound Transit ever had to “realign” before?
Yes. In 2001, officials delayed the Sound Move plan voters passed in 1996. It promised light rail from SeaTac to the University District within a decade for $1.67 billion. But a tunnel under muddy Portage Bay cost $1 billion more than expected. That segment was shifted under Montlake Cut, where University of Washington Station finally opened in 2016. A deep First Hill Station was canceled in 2005 as too financially risky.
During the Great Recession, the board delayed parking garages voters approved in 2008 for Sounder commuter-train stations in Kent, Auburn and Sumner. Plans were revived in the mid-2010s as the economy grew and existing garages filled with customers. This month’s plan commits to garage openings by 2025, for $311 million to add 1,480 spaces and improved walkways. That’s about $200,000 per stall.
With interest rates low, why not borrow money to speed up construction?
Sound Transit is the nation’s biggest user of cheap federal transportation loans, at $3.3 billion. Interest rates in June ranged from 2.1% to 2.4%, low enough that Chief Financial Officer Tracy Butler is trying to refinance, which might save $78 million to $300 million.
The agency expects to raise $18 billion more for new projects by selling municipal bonds.
Borrowing allows projects to be completed years sooner than paying for construction with just the annual tax revenue.
But there are limits.
Sound Transit predicts ample money until around 2029, when it will juggle so many new projects the financial plan goes underwater unless the agency delays some projects or collects more money.
One challenge is to keep a premier AAA credit rating. Excess borrowing can degrade the rating, which increases the interest charges, or can “prevent you from accessing capital,” Butler said.
Existing bond contracts require that Sound Transit debts never exceed a ratio of $1 for each $1.50 in taxes.
Pro-transit activists have suggested removing a state cap that restricts debt to 1.5% of area land value, or $15 billion at the 2029 pinch point. Lifting that lid requires a 60% citizen vote or state legislation. In theory, that adds $1 billion to $3 billion of project capacity, Butler told the board in February.
But if Sound Transit borrows too much, recessions might become catastrophes. Officials might feel pressure to skimp on maintenance or cut service.
“If more debt is issued sooner to pay for projects in the front of the line, then the agency will run out of capacity even sooner, and put future projects at greater risk,” Butler said.
Another puzzle is how many years residents would be taxed to pay increasing debts.
The ST3 plan says the agency must repay bonds after projects are built, then reduce taxes to subsidize just the operations and equipment. The 2016 financial model estimated taxes could be halved in 2048, but officials haven’t recalculated that scenario under realignment.
Can money from the Washington State Department of Transportation support Sound Transit 3 projects?
Direct state aid to Sound Transit is “effectively zero,” CEO Peter Rogoff has said.
Shifting roads money to Sound Transit requires repealing the 18th Amendment to Washington’s Constitution, which says gasoline taxes must be spent for “highway purposes.”
The state is providing local transit programs $103 million for 2021-23, from sources such as license fees. Sound Transit isn’t eligible because lawmakers believe the agency has plenty of power and money already. Indeed, Seattle-area residents pay more transit taxes than other U.S. regions — largely because of Sound Transit.
Cash is tight at WSDOT, which lost toll income during the pandemic that was targeted for new I-405 lanes, said House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey, D-Tacoma. Maintenance spending hasn’t kept up with aging roads.
State carbon fees approved by this year’s Legislature begin in 2023 and could generate $5.2 billion over 16 years. Currently, the Legislature’s project categories spread money among uses such as ferry electrification, clean-car subsidies, passenger trains, rural bus service and school-zone safety.
The nonprofit Transportation Choices Coalition will lobby lawmakers to increase transit grants using carbon revenues, and let Sound Transit apply for them, said policy director Hester Serebrin.
Are bus-rapid transit projects going to be delayed?
Stride bus-rapid transit lines were promised by 2024 from Lynnwood to Bellevue, from Burien to Bellevue, and from Bothell to Shoreline. The realignment schedule delays Stride until 2026-27, with parking garages opened in 2034-35.
In Orting, Pierce County, bus signals and passing lanes on Highway 162 to the Sounder commuter-train station in Sumner were postponed two decades, until 2045.
Can the city of Seattle help finance West Seattle and Ballard light-rail lines?
Probably, if voters approve.
Transit-board members assumed “third party” money was not only legal but necessary to build tunnels in Ballard and West Seattle, which cost more than provided in the 2016 ballot measure.
Now that real estate and construction costs have soared, ST3 might need Seattle money even if leaders settle for elevated tracks in Ballard and West Seattle. A recent poll for the Northwest Progressive Institute says 71% of city residents would support a ballot measure to accelerate ST3, without naming specific taxes.
Seattle voters have contributed before, by passing car-tab fees and a sales tax for extra Metro bus trips and free student ORCA fare cards. But other needs like aging bridges and pedestrian safety will compete for the City Council’s attention.
A proposal by state Rep. David Hackney, D-Tukwila, would allow Seattle voters to increase car-tab taxes to pay for light rail. Seattle could enact congestion-pricing tolls. The realignment plan mentions “tax increment financing,” where property tax windfalls from office towers or condos around future stations might be dedicated to funding light rail.
Why not build a less-expensive gondola to West Seattle?
The Sodo-to-West Seattle light-rail extension requires a 300-foot climb to Alaska Junction, estimated at $3.2 billion and delayed until 2032.
Martin Westerman, a member of the advocacy group WS SkyLink, says steel gondola towers can be built sooner than an elevated or tunneled light-rail line, to relieve frustrations for peninsula residents. “For West Seattle, the clock is ticking,” he said.
Vancouver, B.C., TransLink is proposing high-capacity gondola, hauling 35 people per capsule up 1,210-foot Burnaby Mountain, home of Simon Fraser University, for a cost estimate of $210 million.
A gondola has attracted no public support from Sound Transit board members.
One drawback is convenience. People would have to climb out of gondola capsules at Sodo Station, just to reach a light-rail train to downtown or UW.
Regional capacity is another issue. A gondola would be a spur line, which undermines ST3’s core strategy of three train lines all serving downtown: West Seattle to Everett, Bellevue to mid-Snohomish County, and Tacoma to Ballard. In other words, it takes four-car trains starting at Alaska Junction to enable a big downtown capacity of 36,000 riders per hour per direction.
What options exist besides an extremely expensive train-maintenance base over the Midway Landfill?
As light-rail trains fill bases in Sodo and Bellevue, another rail yard will be needed in South King County. The agency is considering building it on a retired 60-acre landfill along I-5 in Kent to prevent takings of productive businesses or warehouses.
But a concrete cap would be required over the entire landfill, a toxic Superfund site. That pushes costs to $2.4 billion, transit staff say.
Two cheaper finalist sites are in south Federal Way. One layout would displace the Christian Faith Center, while another would oust small industries and the Ellenos yogurt company. The board eliminated a site near Kent-Des Moines Road, following public outcry and 3,000 messages to preserve Dick’s Drive-In and a Lowe’s home-improvement store.
Should the agency build faster by going directly to Everett Station, instead of bending the train route to reach Paine Field?
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers insisted that the ST3 regional “spine” curve west to Paine Field, the state’s largest industrial center and home to Boeing 777 production.
Early studies showed ridership dwindling as trains enter Everett, to only half the volumes using Link to the south, at Mariner Station. But in 2019 a small commercial airport opened at Paine Field, creating a new potential source of transit passengers.
The spread-out industrial zone makes it tough to move commuters between any train station and workplaces. That would require different Community Transit bus routes, plus employer shuttles, Somers said.
The Everett Station District Alliance, which advocates light rail as soon as possible to serve downtown Everett, hasn’t taken a position about the airport bend, and wants all routes studied, said Executive Director Brock Howell.
Sound Transit’s new plan to reach southwest Everett in 2037gives leaders ample time to watch how Everett grows. Or by then, there might be an ST4 ballot measure for more expansion.