A COVID-19 relief bill passed by the U.S. House might provide Sound Transit an additional $375 million to cover costs of light-rail construction to Lynnwood and Federal Way, agency CEO Peter Rogoff says.
The money is part of a $32 billion public-transit section included in the $2.2 trillion stimulus plan. Its next stop is the Trump Administration, for negotiations between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“If they reach a deal, the Senate is going to pass it,” Rogoff predicted in an interview Monday.
However, the overall stimulus has essentially no chance in its current form of passing the Senate. And three years ago the administration called public transit a local service that doesn’t deserve federal cash — but since then federal agencies have kept the money pipeline flowing.
Still, Rogoff said he’s encourage by a broader breakthrough. Congressional Democrats have made light-rail construction eligible for stimulus money, even if a deal in Washington, D.C., isn’t reached until early 2021.
Or possibly the sides will compromise on a package that’s less than $2.2 trillion, and Sound Transit still wins money, he said.
A $375 million windfall is still a far cry from $1.9 billion Sound Transit aspired to get during a summer lobbying blitz.
But Rogoff says the money could take some pressure off future Sound Transit 3 projects, and transit supporters will seek more in the next presidency. He said 14 regional agencies would qualify for the big capital grants. The House bill also proposes an additional $2.4 billion for Amtrak, Mass Transit magazine reported.
A number of projects, such as the I-405 bus-rapid transit proposal, have gone into hibernation since the COVID-19 recession, until financial shortages are better known and the Sound Transit board sets new schedule goals. The agency predicts a $1 billion gap in 2021, and at least $7 billion in tax-revenue shortfalls through 2041.
Work continues under signed contracts for train corridors to Lynnwood, Federal Way and Redmond.
In addition to the $375 million for new Sound Transit lines, the bill passed by the House last week includes $19 billion in transit operating money, of which $594 million would be spread among 10 Puget Sound agencies. Those agencies already were awarded $538 million this summer in federal aid.
Lost ridership is arguably a greater crisis than money. Sound Transit’s bus and train use is down 80% from a year ago, while King County Metro ridership declined by 65%, as the pandemic continues to reduce commute trips. Whether people return to mass transit, and how soon, remains unclear.
However, Amazon last month announced plans to expand its workforce in Bellevue by 2025, and Sound Transit last week said it picked a developer for a $500 million project that includes offices, retail and housing adjacent to a light-rail operations and maintenance facility under construction there.
The federal government already committed $1.17 billion toward the $2.8 billion Northgate-to-Lynnwood project, and $790 million toward the $2.5 billion construction from SeaTac to Federal Way. Train service for both lines is scheduled to begin during 2024.