Despite a crippling finance crisis, a unanimous Sound Transit board voted Thursday to finish the Northeast 130th Street light-rail station in Seattle by 2025.
Members also kept a Graham Street station, in the middle of Seattle’s Rainier Valley, and a Boeing Access Road station on track to open in 2031 as promised to voters in the Sound Transit 3 ballot measure, passed five years ago.
Those moves were highlights of the transit board’s “realignment” plan, which delays most regional projects by two to 10 years.
Ballard would wait until 2039 instead of the voter-approved 2035 goal, while tracks would reach downtown Everett in 2041 instead of 2036, under what’s called the Affordable Schedule. Trains from Federal Way to Tacoma would arrive in 2032, a couple years late.
Light-rail routes from Angle Lake to Federal Way, and Overlake to Redmond, are under construction and remain on target to open in 2024.
Project delays are meant to cope with a $6.5 billion shortfall, by spreading out the projects for 30 years. More importantly, the agency reaches a pinch point in 2029 where it can’t collect enough tax and bond money to build all the regional projects at once.
Board Chair Kent Keel has said all year that voters and taxpayers are owed transparency and straight talk about what’s affordable.
But the latest realignment plan Thursday also adds language designed to avoid delays for at least some projects: hire outside experts to offer cost-savings ideas; seek more money through federal grants, borrowing or other sources; and require quarterly updates from transit staff about ST3 project affordability.
“This plan calls for the collective need to obtain more financial support from D.C. and Olympia, and it calls for our partners to dig deep, for creative approaches to reduce costs,” said Keel, a University Place city council member.
The board heard from commenters who want rail built sooner.
“The real work begins after today,” said Jonathan Hopkins, executive director for volunteer group Seattle Subway. “Cities need to allow construction 24/7, an approach that allows other countries to complete projects faster than we do.” Sound Transit should look to British Columbia, where environmental review is two to three years faster, he said. “We can and must do better.”
Those talking points echo findings this week in a landmark study of 180 rail transit projects worldwide last month, by the Eno Center for Transportation, which found U.S. projects cost nearly 50% more than in Europe.
So how did 130th Street Station return to the fast track?
Board member Debora Juarez, a Seattle City Council member from north Seattle, has championed that site for six years. She said afterward that $30 million has already gone into station design and construction. Contractors on the 2024 Northgate-Lynnwood line built columns and wide platform bases already, that travelers can see from Interstate 5. So completing it now is cheaper than rebuilding the area in 2036, as one realignment plan suggested.
In a final-hour amendment by Keel, the board figured out a schedule that frees up enough money for 130th and Graham stations, by delaying a parking structure for bus-rapid transit customers at Lake Forest Park Town Center, until 2044. Otherwise, the new plan would have shoved Interbay and Ballard light-rail stations out yet another year, until 2040.
Former state Rep. Velma Veloria, representing the Filipino community around Graham Street, called the area “a neighborhood that has been historically ignored by Sound Transit,” where people have waited a long time for train access.
In other trade-offs, the board agreed to build promised park-and-ride space in south Federal Way and Fife by 2038 along the light-rail route to Tacoma, by delaying additional Sounder commuter train trips until 2046.
Board members also voted to deliver the $300 million triple-deck Northeast 85th Street interchange with a bus-rapid transit station along Interstate 405 as soon as 2026, while delaying a Kingsgate parking project until 2035.
At least eight projects, especially West Seattle light rail, are late not just because of money worries, but delays choosing routes and completing environmental and permitting tasks during the COVID-19 pandemic, staff said.
For now, the board defused the explosive question of whether Seattle’s voracious needs and wants will suck up Sound Transit’s credit capacity, leaving less money to serve Everett at the end of the so-called regional spine. Estimated shortfalls as of Thursday night are $1.8 billion for Seattle’s Ballard-to-Sodo light rail, and $600 million for downtown Everett, revised downward from worse deficits in July.
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers and Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier had raised the volume this week by tweeting that Thursday’s meeting would show “whether Sound Transit 3 will be built as the regional mass transit system voters approved, or become yet another victim to local interests.”
Members unanimously passed a Somers amendment that prohibits final design and construction for any project, if there’s still a funding gap that delays projects elsewhere.
“This just really assures everyone’s place in line,” Somers said. “We will all be gone, and this issue will still be debated. And they will still be dealing with the affordability gap.”
The realignment does change Snohomish County’s schedule, so tracks go to Mariner and Southwest Everett in 2037, instead of trying to build all the way from Lynnwood to downtown Everett in one fell swoop.
Board members also issued a more ambitious “target schedule,” in the event they can close the currently estimated $6.5 billion gap. In that scenario, trains would reach downtown Everett by 2037 instead of 2041, and Ballard by 2037 instead of 2039, according to spokesperson Geoff Patrick.