SOUND TRANSIT: Will money crunch derail West Seattle light-rail schedule?

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.”

60 Replies to "SOUND TRANSIT: Will money crunch derail West Seattle light-rail schedule?"

  • pilsner June 4, 2020 (10:55 am)

    Well, It’s definitely an election year, isn’t it?

  • Eugene June 4, 2020 (10:55 am)

    It’s time for some new leaders in this city.

  • Carrie June 4, 2020 (10:56 am)

    I’m so glad that West Seattle’s isolation continues apace. I guess they think no one here needs to ever leave, it’s so nice!

  • Ant June 4, 2020 (11:12 am)

    Please raise my taxes. It’s a joke that we try to maintain and build a world class city on a cents from the couch cushions and a prayer. We should also simultaneously punch tim eyman in the face (figuratively of course, not condoning violence). 

    • Chris K June 4, 2020 (11:59 am)

      Amen to that!  I would gladly pay more taxes to cover this and other needed services. 

    • TheAntiJort June 4, 2020 (3:23 pm)

      I’ve renewed two cars since the voters approved the Eyman tabs thing.   NEITHER one has been reduced while the issue rots in the court system.  However you feel about the issue (I was in favor) it hasn’t made a difference yet.  I’m about to fork over $200 to register a 30yr old $1500 car again.

    • Albert June 4, 2020 (9:25 pm)

      50 billion isn’t enough, lol? by the time they finish it’ll be $250,000,000,000 and the year 2125. 

  • bill June 4, 2020 (11:34 am)

    In case anyone wonders how West Seattle has “other” transit options, consider: You can drive to Seatac, fly to Everett, rent a car and drive to downtown.

    • heartless June 4, 2020 (11:51 am)

      I love it!

    • Frog June 4, 2020 (1:32 pm)

      Dude, you have to get over your private car fetish.  You can bike to Seatac, fly to Everett, and take a bus to downtown.

      • PDiddy June 4, 2020 (2:27 pm)

        Its not always practical. My wife tried public transit and it turned a 30-40 min commute into 1.5 hours each way. Not a good trade-off nor a good use of time.  I think the blanket argument is foolish and you certainly are not going to bike in a hard downpour (most people) during winter etc. What we need is faster transit. I think the rapid rides were an start but they got stuck in traffic. Light rail can address some of that but maybe a better option instead of dumping so much money into ST3 is to do like the Netherlands with dedicate bus lanes independent of all traffic (and I do not mean just taking a lane from cars). I took it from the airport to Harlem and it was actually pretty pleasant and not too slow. I liked the idea a lot but they also have a mature rail system. But the militant biker attitude wont win you friends. Not sure that is you but I see it a lot with self righteous posts. Anyways. Just tear down the bridge and start it over and please put better ramps to 99 as well as restore a 4th ave ramp on.

        • heartless June 4, 2020 (3:25 pm)

          The post you’re replying to was tongue-in-cheek, just as Bill’s original post was a joke.

        • Also John June 4, 2020 (8:02 pm)

          I’m glad you threw in (most people)…    I rode to downtown for 19 years before retiring.  I rode in rains that car wipers couldn’t keep up with.  The only thing that stopped me was snow.

      • bill June 4, 2020 (10:57 pm)

        @Frog: As a matter of fact I have a bike fetish. Personally I would bike to Seatac on my travel bike, fly to Everett, and bike to downtown.

  • Jort June 4, 2020 (11:39 am)

    Hey, seems like a really good time to demand an additional $1 to $2 billion tunnel, since people don’t like to look at concrete piers! 

    • Will S. June 4, 2020 (3:27 pm)

      Did the marginal cost of a tunnel increase from $700 million into the billions, or are you just exaggerating?

    • K to the F June 4, 2020 (3:59 pm)

      Oh, Jort. Such a scamp! Those who oppose above ground light rail aren’t just concerned about how it looks (though that’s one factor). Allow me to list how a 60-150′ tall concrete railway cast effect a livable neighborhood for you:

      – Noise from the trains whizzing by residences
      – Giant pillars that are mildew and graffiti magnets that will also make navigating streets or sidewalks they are planted in more difficult to navigate (aka Viaduct 2)
      – Displacement of residents under and near chosen elevated route
      – Shadows cast by guideway, pillars, and block+ long elevated stations
      – Large concrete structures vastly out of scale for the density of our neighborhood

      What else can I help you understand? Any funding shortfall will likely mean an underground option is off the table which is a loss when considering the above and that, when light rail has encountered large hills or dense neighborhoods elsewhere, it went underground. Our neighborhood is worth the extra investment and I take pride in fighting for such investments made here.

      • Jort June 4, 2020 (6:50 pm)

        Four of your five bullet points are, actually, directed toward aesthetic concerns. You asked me, “What else can I help you understand?” Perhaps you  can help me understand how a fantasy-land wish for a tunnel became, legally, a veto point over a voter-approved initiative to build elevated, grade-separated light rail to the Junction? Oh wait, it didn’t, and the light rail is going to get built, tunnel or no, because it is the law that voters approved. What HAS changed is the economic environment, which coincidentally makes it even MORE  difficult to ask for extra money for a vanity-concern tunnel. People can waste time and money fighting this, but  construction will happen, by law, whether the Dream Tunnel is part of it or not. 

        • Carrie June 4, 2020 (10:22 pm)

          “Noise” is hardly an aesthetic concern. 

      • KM June 4, 2020 (7:34 pm)

        Sounds like the West Seattle Bridge to me.

    • K to the F June 4, 2020 (4:06 pm)

      Let’s also be clear the costs for a tunnel under the Junction area were ballparked at $700 million. Multiple tunnels (under Pidgeon Point and Junction) was the only option that crested about $1.2 billion but never was $2 billion mentioned. It’s a lot of money but you’re off by a factor of 2 or more.

  • Aerial Observer June 4, 2020 (11:43 am)

    Shelve the West Seattle expansion until we obtain the funds to run the line underground in West Seattle, either completely in a tunnel under Elliott Bay, or from wherever the bridge crossing enters the peninsula (as the Beacon Hill tunnel does there). The area from the Junction to the Triangle will continue to add housing and retail jobs, and the very last thing it needs are grade-separated rail tracks plowing through the midst of that pedestrian-friendly growth. Also, The Junction itself is a wonderful, walkable space (as the recent protests have demonstrated nicely), and a station entrance  west of the bank, where a parking lot now sits, would complement that pedestrian-friendliness nicely. Having rail tracks plow through or near The Junction would transform it for the worse for decades.

    • Jort June 4, 2020 (12:33 pm)

      Nope! We are going to build the light rail, as approved by voters, on an elevated line. If it’s not in a tunnel, we will adapt and we will move on. “Not building it because feelings are hurt about how it looks” is not what we voted on. It will be built. 

      • Chemist June 4, 2020 (2:03 pm)

        … and Ballard will have a movable bridge because that was the representative plan that voters approved and we can’t spare contingency funds for the high bridge to Ballard. 

      • TheAntiJort June 4, 2020 (3:28 pm)

        I-976 was approved by voters as well….

    • East Coast Cynic June 4, 2020 (1:15 pm)

      Without a high bridge, I don’t believe there will be much incentive to build housing and add jobs to a peninsula that has become severely transit compromised.  If people perceive West Seattle as a place that is difficult to commute in and out of, I don’t see how we will continue to be an attractive spot for people to consider living or working in until our transit infrastructure issues get resolved via a restored or rebuilt high bridge and or light rail.

  • West Seattle Hipster June 4, 2020 (11:48 am)

    Simple economics.  Businesses closed, people aren’t spending money.  People don’t spend money, tax revenue not generating.There will be many programs and service cut because of the revenue shortage.

  • Joe Z June 4, 2020 (12:50 pm)

    The clear solution to cut costs is to follow the bridge right-of-way and build the line at-grade along Fauntleroy with low cost, at-grade stations at 35th and near Whole Foods. Similar to how it is on MLK No elaborate elevated track or stations. No property acquisitions. 

    • Also John June 4, 2020 (8:20 pm)

      I have no problem with your suggestion.  Super cheap compared to other alternatives.

  • anonyme June 4, 2020 (1:11 pm)

    I hope it’s derailed.  All of the current plans involve an insane amount of destruction, which is the last thing we need now – or ever.

    • Jort June 4, 2020 (2:44 pm)

      Nope! We are going to build it. If you think a light rail track is “destruction,” just WAIT until you see how much public land we’ve plastered with concrete and asphalt to move people’s beep-beep vroom-vroom private automobiles. 

  • Lynne June 4, 2020 (1:19 pm)

    Thank you, Tracy, WSB Editor, for your thorough coverage of this issue. This is the most comprehensive review i have seen on Sound Transit proposals. Lots to think about in this article.

  • cjboffoli June 4, 2020 (1:33 pm)

    Somehow – maybe due to the inherent challenge in quantifying it – these projections never take into account the silent tax that automatically hits everyone’s pocket due to existing congestion. There is not only the significant productivity cost of sitting in traffic, but the cost of burned fuel, pollution increases (air, water, noise) that exact a toll further down the line, the cost to human health in the aforementioned pollution impact and related emotional stress, the increase in costs associated with getting goods to market, etc. The cost of inaction might just be exponentially higher in the long run as opposed to funding these projects up front with bonds to get them going sooner rather than later.

  • MarFaun June 4, 2020 (1:36 pm)

    I like the Aerial Observer name.  I’m suggesting aerial transit — a gondola system from WS Junction to SoDo and perhaps the I.D., that could carry 5000 passengers per hour with 30 second headways, and all 4-5 miles built for less than the cost of one mile of light rail ($64M / mile aerial vs. $500M /mile light rail).  Here are the details: 

    • Joe Z June 4, 2020 (1:54 pm)

      How does that help those of us who live on the side of the hill? Do we get to keep riding the bus?

      • ARPigeonPoint June 4, 2020 (4:38 pm)

        Those of who don’t lose our homes to the construction are relegated to the COVID express buses. 

  • Dzag June 4, 2020 (1:51 pm)

    With the new covid crisis, it’s much safer to take private transportation. The busses aren’t full more people will work at home maybe it’s time to stop charging high car tabs and property taxes and scrap the program. 

    • heartless June 4, 2020 (2:04 pm)

      Uh, you’re actually saying now is a good time for West Seattleites to take private transportation (I’m assuming you mean cars)?  If so I’ve got a bridge to sell you…

      • Dzag June 4, 2020 (2:28 pm)

        That’s a really good point a bridge needs to be built first it would be great if we can use the money saved to build a larger and stronger bridge that will last a long time 

        • JVP June 4, 2020 (8:09 pm)

          A stronger bridge that is going to last a long time, especially in earthquake country, is called a tunnel.I don’t think a tunnel is realistic, but it’s the smarter and lower cost option in the (very) long run.

    • West Seattle since 1979 June 4, 2020 (2:21 pm)

      That’s not going to last forever though.

  • tsurly June 4, 2020 (1:51 pm)

    Stop subsidizing cars and force them pay their fair share, making more money available for other things.

  • miws June 4, 2020 (2:37 pm)

  • Lagartija Nick June 4, 2020 (3:25 pm)

    If cuts are to be made I suggest they cut projects in the subareas that a) didn’t vote for ST3 (looking at you Pierce County) and b) subareas that voted for I-976 (looking at you Snohomish County and east King county). The areas that overwhelmingly voted for ST3 and against I-976 (Seattle and west King County) should NOT have to endure cuts.

    • flimflam June 4, 2020 (5:09 pm)

      i don’t think that’s how it works…

      • Lagartija Nick June 4, 2020 (7:18 pm)

        We’ll, of course not but a guy can dream right?

  • Nick June 4, 2020 (3:53 pm)

    Combine the light rail project with a new traffic bridge.  The combined funding sources FTA, FHWA, TIGER, etc can cover a lot of the cost. The savings in right of way acquisition in a joint project also need to be talked about. Forget the prelim alignment that has been shopped around. Put a Delridge station by the fire department (Station 36) and use buses to convey riders to the station.  Done right the buses in this shuttle configuration are highly effective.  Continue the train alignment along the current high bridge alignment and up Fauntleroy to the junction. Don’t let them sell you on a fix for the current bridge. Waste of money. The shoring contract they have executed was done in haste. They can lower the high bridge down in segments just like it was built. 

  • Flivver June 4, 2020 (4:27 pm)

    Heartless. Was a story on the news a couple of weeks ago that car sales are UP in Seattle. Why? People are uncomfortable riding the bus or ride shares because of covid. 

  • Joe Z June 4, 2020 (4:41 pm)

    A new car bridge is never going to do anything more than hold people in mile-long backups to merge onto I-5 or SR-99 NB. Same as the old bridge. Nothing has changed about the need for light rail because of either COVID or the bridge problems.

    • JVP June 4, 2020 (8:12 pm)

      We need both. A robust transportation need more than a single point of failure. 

  • Better luck next time June 4, 2020 (6:15 pm)

    Thanks for the reporting and the data WSB.  Better luck next time West Seattle, Ballard and Everett.  This is not the first time that Sound Transit has fallen short of its revenue goals or of its plans for the growth of transit.  Projects in ST2 were completed with ST3 money just check the project plan websites for those with shorter memories or experiences.  They have the maps and plans that keep getting repeated until there is actually is enough money.  Their planning and aspirations are frequently two cycles behind.  When they actually complete a project it is great (e.g., light rail to SEA, and UW).  But it will likely be a couple more cycles and hundreds of more slide presentations before light rail comes to West Seattle or Ballard.  It is how Sound Transit does business: promise big and deliver in small increments of time with lots of cost overruns because of inaccurate estimates at the beginning (some of which may be intentional).

  • Flivver June 4, 2020 (6:28 pm)

    Heartless. I misspoke. Let me correct myself. The news story was that people that did not own a car and used transit/rideshare to get around were buying car’s for their own use as they were afraid of getting covid

    • heartless June 4, 2020 (7:17 pm)

      Gotcha, thanks.  And yeah, people doing that makes sense to me.  

    • KM June 4, 2020 (7:39 pm)

      There are many who cannot physically drive, don’t qualify for a license, or cannot afford to drive. 

  • Also John June 4, 2020 (8:04 pm)

    Save money by combining the Avalon and Junction stations.  Build one station at the intersection of Fauntleroy and Alaska.

    • chemist June 4, 2020 (9:32 pm)

      Save money by skipping Avalon station and building nice wide sidewalks/stairs between the remaining stations.

      • AdmiralBridge June 5, 2020 (9:20 am)

        In reality this is exactly the kind of thinking that is needed and – oh by the way – used in rational parts of the world.  A single subway station in Tokyo can service 2-3 blocks in any direction with the adjunct tunnels/escalators/moving sidewalks.  Entirely feasible here, just need to have some honor amongst thieves that we don’t destroy it or develop the mass transit equivalent of car prowling.

  • Mike June 5, 2020 (7:47 am)

    We voted for the Monorail 4 times.  We voted against the stadiums twice. We get what the folks that run things want.  The history of our city bears this out .

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