By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The coronavirus-crisis money crunch could force Sound Transit to delay and/or cut some of its upcoming projects – and everything’s on the table, including the plan to bring light rail to West Seattle in 2030.
Potential scenarios for funding gaps, and potential ways to address them, were presented to the ST Board at a Wednesday afternoon workshop. We watched it online. Here’s the slide deck (also, here in PDF):
Chief Financial Officer Tracy Butler started with the grim numbers. When you look at them, keep in mind that sales tax provides a big chunk of ST’s funding. And since sales are way down, sales tax is too. Projecting out to the end of ST3 in 2041, they could be down $8 billion in a “moderate” recession, $12 billion in a “severe” one.
They can’t just borrow their way out of it, because they project costs would start exceeding theirc combined debt limit around 2028. So that’s when their current plan starts becoming “unaffordable.”
One way to tackle that might be to increase their debt limit – which would require supermajority voter approval. Also, they could try to raise revenue to increasing rental-car taxes and fares (both dicey propositions right now since the virus has squashed travel and transit use).
Or – they could cut costs by scaling down, stretching out, or delaying projects. “The choice doesn’t need to be IF you’re going to do a given project, but WHEN,” said Don Billen, ST’s executive director of planning.
ST has 10 projects in the pipeline for 2025-2041 completion, including the West Seattle branch in 2030. No specific projects were proposed for changes or delays in this discussion, but it was suggested that, for example, any given project could be stretched out or even built in segments, as has happened in South King County.
Where the West Seattle extension starts to look a bit endangered is in the potential criteria for suggesting changes, such as whether the project advances the system “spine” (no), whether it must “be completed for other projects to happen” (no), and whether “communities the project serves have other transit options” (yes).
No specific projects were discussed at the workshop, and no decisions were made. Next step is a discussion of the decision-making criteria at the board’s next Executive Committee meeting (originally planned for today but postponed until sometime next week), followed by a broader discussion at the full board meeting June 23, and decisions sometime this summer.
In the meantime, the West Seattle light-rail line – one of the projects in the 2016 ST3 ballot measure – remains in the environmental-study phase, with the next milestone currently scheduled to be the draft Environmental Impact Statement’s release early next year. ST spokesperson David Jackson tells WSB, “Work continues on the West Seattle-Ballard project, but plans and timelines of all projects not currently under contract or in construction are subject to change as part of our realignment process.”