No major features such as stations or park-and-ride garages were cut in the latest proposals to fill a $500 million hole in the plan to build light rail from Northgate to Lynnwood.
By nipping here and tucking there, a Sound Transit manager says his team located $200 million in potential savings to ease a budget crisis in the Northgate-to-Lynnwood light-rail extension.
No major features such as stations or park-and-ride garages were slashed in the latest proposals, which include about 100 changes along the 8.5-mile corridor, said Rod Kempkes, executive project director for Lynnwood Link.
His team negotiated so-called “value-engineering” ideas with suburban staff and mayors since summer, when the voter-approved $2.4 billion cost estimate soared to $2.9 billion.
Even assuming the trimming works, there’s a roughly $300 million gap, which could wind up plunging taxpayers deeper into debt. A preliminary finance update is expected soon.
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The 18-member transit board, composed of regional elected officials and chaired by Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, asked no questions and offered no comments in the public board meeting Thursday, though nine-figure budget choices and an estimated 67,000 daily riders are in play.
They’ll get another look this spring, following more engineering to double-check the hoped-for $200 million savings. Final design is due in early 2019. Barring further problems, the line would open in mid-2024.
Several factors caused the budget crunch.
Requests for larger stations and bus-access lanes forced more land purchases, as real-estate costs skyrocketed. Construction bids are rising amid labor and materials shortages.
Suburban cities asked for premium design features and enhanced walk-bike access, and even event plaza space. And the staff was caught by surprise as environmental rules and costs changed.
“It was death by a thousand cuts that got us where we’re at,” Kempkes said after a brief update to the transit board. “So, the solution is a thousand Band-Aids.”
• Moving the Shoreline North park-and-ride garage from the west to the east side of Interstate 5 at Northeast 185th Street, thought to save $15 million.
• Eliminating hollow, curvy concrete girders in the elevated trackway spans in favor of cheaper, stronger I-shaped beams, saving $10 million.
• Ditching plans for a 4-foot-wide maintenance walkway on top of soil-retaining walls, along nearly 4 miles of surface trackway. Removing walkways in sloped areas also enables the walls to be shorter, for a total $4 million savings, Kempkes said.
• Replacing scoured topsoil after construction to only 18 inches deep instead of 24 inches, and planting fewer than the 60,000 or so trees forecast earlier.
• Waiving the Lynnwood standard of 9-foot-wide parking stalls to build at 8½-feet wide, saving materials and space.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff warned the board about an even greater risk than the $500 million cost increase — that Lynnwood Link might not get the federal grant of $1.17 billion that once seemed like a slam dunk under President Barack Obama.
The Trump administration this spring issued a budget blueprint that seeks to eliminate such grants, on grounds that transit “should be funded by states and localities that benefit from their use.” Some members of Congress are pushing back.
Rogoff said that longstanding federal rules might change in federal budget talks next month, and he hopes for a meeting of the minds — so the Lynnwood line can secure the grant by Sept. 30.
“If we do not, we’d have to consider further slippage of the project, which nobody wants,” he said.
The board voted Thursday to apply for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) money.
In that paperwork, Sound Transit will attest that it can finance the project even if there’s no real savings and costs stay up at $2.93 billion, Kempkes said. (The figure would be listed as $3.07 billion, under an FTA matrix that includes bond interest that transit agencies pay before opening day.)
Other risks are lurking.
State lawmakers might revive a failed 2017 bill to reduced Sound Transit car-tab taxes, which are charged on a depreciation schedule that overvalues newer vehicles. Previous modeling by Sound Transit Chief Financial Officer Brian McCartan indicates the agency can handle such a dip in revenue.
But he has yet to issue any forecast showing how Lynnwood Link might withstand losing the $1 billion grant from the federal government. Complicating matters, the agency has largely adhered to a “subarea” policy to spend taxes where they are collected — and Snohomish County is the poorest of five areas in the sprawling transit district.
Every cost increase in the Lynnwood project jeopardizes the schedule and budget for continuing north to Everett by 2035, as voters were promised in Sound Transit 3.