Sound Transit’s governing board voted Thursday to pay its light-rail design consultants another $4.2 million — to help the board find ways to save money.
That spending boost, approved unanimously, increases overall payments to $92 million for HNTB, the giant engineering firm that performs preliminary engineering and environmental studies in the West Seattle-to-Ballard corridor.
Sound Transit is trying to close a potential $6.5 billion funding gap between long-term project costs and revenue from taxes, grants and fares. Most of this shortfall is projected in Seattle, where project costs estimated at $7 billion soared past $12 billion, deputy CEO Kimberly Farley revealed in January.
Thursday’s increase to HNTB illustrates the need to learn more about costs and options, so the board can “be crystal clear” while making schedule changes or delays, known as realignment, said transit board Chair Kent Keel, a University Place council member.
As of Aug. 5, the board proposed delaying Ballard service two years until 2039 and postponing downtown Everett service four years until 2041 — dates that could be accelerated if the agency finds savings, or wins additional federal grants.
Some of the extra HNTB money compensates for nine months of delay during the COVID-19 pandemic, which slowed work among many organizations, the transit staff said.
Meanwhile, consultants from Denver-based Triunity Engineering & Management told Sound Transit to address financial risks earlier.
Sound Transit employs a sophisticated staff and project controls, and has good morale on the Seattle planning team, Triunity says. However, the agency tends to wait until final engineering and construction phases to crack down on costs and risks, its draft 19-page report says.
The board hired Triunity for a $774,130 contract to examine how Sound Transit got into this predicament, and issue three reports. Triunity seized on soaring right of way costs, and said real estate specialists weren’t involved enough with early estimating.
One problem is the board didn’t pick a single preferred Ballard-to-West Seattle alternative before sending myriad options for HNTB and transit staff to study. The draft environmental impact report is due late this year, and it’s unclear if the board will make a prompt route decision.
“This critical step is behind schedule and may contribute additional delay,” Triunity says.
Seattle’s rail program lost one to two years to planning delays, and will likely be split into three separate projects, the report says.
Voters passed new property, sales and car-tab taxes in the 2016 Sound Transit 3 ballot measure to dramatically expand rail and bus service.
Just to reach the starting line for environmental reviews, Sound Transit operated a five-layer process of community, stakeholder and politician meetings until 2019. “Fiscal constraint of alternatives has not been a prime factor,” Triunity found. The environmental study incorporates many versions to fit the amount of money that might become available.
“This approach may have the effect of creating a bloated project that is unaffordable and sets up unrealistic expectations for the stakeholders and public,” the report says. Seattle voters could someday be asked to approve city-only taxes to help fund light-rail tunnels in Ballard and West Seattle.
A recent study by the Eno Center for Transportation raised similar warnings nationwide, that out-of-control processes are a reason U.S. rail-transit costs 50% more than in Europe.
Sound Transit is forming a Portfolio Services Office to better manage the nation’s largest transit expansion, by coordinating with multiple departments that Triunity described as “siloed.”
“According to ST staff, there has historically been a cultural problem about not wanting to deliver bad news or daylight issues in a timely manner,” draft report says. “The daylighting issues on WSBLE [West Seattle to Ballard Link Extension] have been significant and it is unclear to staff at times how, when, and where to daylight issues to agency leadership when scope, schedule, or budget change.”
Triunity said Los Angeles Metro faces many of the same challenges.