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WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: What Sound Transit Board’s realignment vote means for our area

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

With many amendments but little drama, Sound Transit Board members have adopted what they call a “hybrid” realignment plan.

It’s the result of two methodologies for dealing with an “affordability gap” currently estimated at $6+ billion, down from a previous $12 billion estimate – pushing back the schedule, and cutting costs. Board chair Kent Keel of the University Place City Council and Claudia Balducci of the King County Council consolidated their dueling proposals to make it happen, toward the end of almost a year and a half of discussion.

The headline for West Seattle: The light-rail line between The Junction and SODO is in the plan’s Tier 1, which means it’s a high priority, and among the least likely to face more delays. It’s already scheduled for one year later than the original 2030 date in the ST3 ballot measure; what emerged during realignment discussions as the “Affordable Schedule” for ST projects would push it back no more than one additional year, to 2032. The official language for Tier 1 projects is “as close to the original ST3 schedule as reasonably possible.” However, under this plan, SODO would be the end of the line for an estimated six years; the second Downtown Transit Tunnel is not projected for completion until 2038. (The original ST3 plan had a five-year gap.)

For fine-print fans, here’s the substitute realignment resolution the board approved, as seen before the amendments that all got unanimous “yes” votes – which were, from this list, #2, #4, #5, #6, #7, #9, #10. Some amendments clarified the language about the board’s intent to “speed up” implementation of projects if at all possible; others advanced a few projects to higher-priority tiers, such as two Seattle “infill” stations and parking/bus projects outside Seattle.

At the end of the meeting, board members expressed relief and even some jubilation. “I wasn’t sure this was possible!” marveled board member Bruce Dammeier, the Pierce County Executive. “Now we have a framework before us,” observed board chair Keel.

The plan now calls for re-examining projects at multiple points before construction is green-lighted:

One of two West Seattleites on the board, County Councilmember Joe McDermott, told us afterward: “Today the Board took action to better monitor and be informed of cost projections and also set expectations on project delivery. Most important to West Seattle is the fact that today’s vote keeps intact the expected opening of Light Rail serving West Seattle with stations serving the Alaska Junction, Avalon, and Delridge in 2032. … Meeting my objective of not delaying Light Rail to West Seattle was essential to my vote for the agency’s ‘realignment’ proposal this afternoon.”

So what’s next for West Seattle light rail? The draft Environmental Impact Statement, currently in development, will be a major step toward settling on station locations and the exact path light rail would follow to get to them; we’ll be checking on the latest projected release date (most recent estimate was “fall”). Its release will launch a new public-comment period.

On eve of Sound Transit realignment vote, West Seattle SkyLink launches petition drive for gondola consideration

Tomorrow afternoon, as previewed here, the Sound Transit Board is expected to adopt a realignment plan – potentially delaying West Seattle light rail. Supporters of a transit alternative – a gondola system – have been trying to convince ST to seriously consider it as an alternative for the West Seattle spur of the system. They say a gondola line, which they call West Seattle SkyLink, could be built faster and cheaper than light rail between SODO and The Junction. So now they’re collecting signatures on an online petition with this request:

We ask Sound Transit to immediately commission gondola experts to conduct a technical engineering study on using a gondola as the West Seattle connection to the Link light rail spine.

We further ask the Sound Transit Board to use the results of the study to compare the gondola to light rail alternatives in reaching a determination on the best way to connect West Seattle to Link.

The gondola concept has been discussed for a few years, but the organized campaign under the name West Seattle SkyLink really revved up around the first of the year; we first talked with advocates in January. ST says it considered gondolas (see page 35) while planning ST3; SkyLink supporters think the transit agency should take another look. If you’re interested in signing their petition, see it here.

WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: Sound Transit Board to vote on ‘realignment’ this week

After more than a year of talking about “realignment” to deal with an “affordability gap,” the Sound Transit Board is scheduled to take action this Thursday afternoon. When we first wrote about the concept in June of last year, ST staff warned that they could be as much as $12 billion short on what was needed through the ST3 plan’s scheduled end in 2041. More recently, the projection has been almost halved, down to $6.5 billion; as a result, some board members have objected to settling on either big delays or big cuts that might not be needed. What they eventually landed on, as we reported last month, is what they’re calling a “flexible framework” that could be revisited every year. To the point of peninsula interest, that realignment proposal would push West Seattle light rail to 2032 (it was originally planned for 2030 but pandemic-delayed to 2031).

The resolution they’ll be considering can be read here; various proposed amendments are here. The 1 pm Thursday (August 5th) online meeting includes a public-comment period. The agenda includes information on how to participate in that, and/or how to comment in advance, as well as how to watch/listen.

BUSES: Sound Transit proposes Route 560 change

Sound Transit is circulating its proposed 2022 service changes for comment, and there’s one change proposed for ST Express Route 560, which runs between West Seattle, Sea-Tac, and Bellevue: Weekend daytime service would increase from every hour to every half-hour. That’s the only proposed change that would directly affect West Seattle, but it’s one of many systemwide. You can review them all and comment via this website, or by email at servicechanges@soundtransit.org; deadline for comments is August 22nd. ST also plans an online open house at 6 pm August 11th (register here) and public hearing at 11 am August 12th (register here). This is just for its current light-rail and bus service, not future projects such as West Seattle light rail (here’s the latest on that).

LIGHT RAIL: ‘Hybrid’ scenario arrives as Sound Transit realignment vote approaches

Originally the Sound Transit board was expected to vote today on a realignment plan, to deal with a multi-billion-dollar “affordability gap.” The board’s been talking about it for many months, but some said they wanted to hold off on making big changes because the affordability gap keeps shrinking as the revenue/funding outlook improves. One of the board members in that camp, King County Council chair Claudia Balducci, had been advocating for focusing on cost savings rather than schedule delays to close the gap; ST board chair Kent Keel had proposed a plan focused on the latter. At today’s meeting (here’s the video), a “hybrid” plan incorporating elements of both (highlights above or here; draft resolution here) was presented. Like Keel’s plan, it would push back West Seattle light rail one more year, to 2032, but the plan includes provisions for relatively frequent re-evaluation of schedules and costs system-wide. The board “is on the verge of a solution,” Keel declared at today’s meeting. The vote is now scheduled for a special meeting on August 5th – no time set yet. Got an opinion? emailtheboard@soundtransit.org is where to send it.

LIGHT RAIL: Advocacy groups campaign against Sound Transit schedule delays

We’ve been reporting on the Sound Transit “realignment” process, which is still barreling down the tracks toward a potential board vote later this month. Board discussions have continued to include urban King County board members urging a delay in decisionmaking, as the financial picture keeps improving, and they contend the “affordability gap” may narrow further. In addition, one board member who’s led that call for months – King County Council chair Claudia Balducci of Bellevue – has been working on an alternative proposal which she has suggested would rely more on cost cuts than delays; the latter are the cornerstone of the realignment plan board chair Kent Keel of the University Place City Council has proposed. While his plan would only delay West Seattle light rail one year beyond the current 2031 projection, some parts of the ST plan would be pushed into the 2040s.

With all that as a backdrop, more than half a dozen advocacy groups held a media briefing today to “oppose any delay in delivery of voter-approved mass transit projects, to call on the Sound Transit board to instead adopt plans that keep the schedule promised to voters, and create a framework to fill budget gaps and accelerate projects.” The groups include the Sierra Club, Disability Rights Washington, 350 Seattle, Puget Sound Sage, Transportation Choices Coalition, Transit Riders Union, Seattle Subway, and local coalitions from around King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties.

We asked Robert Cruickshank of the Sierra Club what the coalition plans to do, and what it’s asking concerned community members to do: For one, Cruickshank says, “Sierra Club will be sending a message to our members in the Puget Sound area next week asking them to contact the Sound Transit board and urge them to reject any plans that would delay delivery of transit lines and instead work with state and federal partners to deliver projects on or ahead of schedule. And right now anyone can deliver that message directly to the Sound Transit board by sending them an email at emailtheboard@soundtransit.org — an email sent to that address will get sent to all 18 board members.” The board’s Finance and Audit Committee will discuss realignment next Thursday, and the full board might vote July 22nd if there’s no decision to wait.

West Seattle light rail in 2032? Here’s what the Sound Transit Board chair is suggesting for potential ‘realignment’ scenario

The Sound Transit Board won’t vote before next month on a potential “realignment” scenario – reconfiguring future plans to address estimated revenue drops and cost jumps. Today, calling it a “starting point,” board chair Kent Keel (from the University Place City Council in Pierce County) unveiled a proposed scenario. As shown above in a slide from the meeting presentation (see the full deck here), his proposal would delay West Seattle light rail until 2032 – one year later than the currently planned 2031, which in turn is one year past what was outlined in the ST3 ballot measure. Board members didn’t spend much time talking about it; some have contended that it’s too soon to realign, since revenue estimates keep improving, and in fact CEO Peter Rogoff started the meeting with a quick mention of rosier revenue projections at multiple government levels. One board member, King County Council chair Claudia Balducci from Bellevue, has been the loudest voice arguing against realigning now; she has contended that changes should focus more on cost cuts than schedule delays. She said today that her own proposal isn’t ready to present yet but will be soon. In a parallel process, the board is still working through the reasons for the sudden, dramatic rise in cost estimates, and got another in a series of reports from a consultant during today’s meeting. Board members’ next realignment discussion is expected when their Executive Committee meets July 1st; the full board meeting at which a vote might be taken is July 22nd.

WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: New timeline for next planning milestone

Out of a 43-page slide deck, that’s the one slide that caught our attention when Sound Transit briefed the Seattle City Council Transportation and Utilities Committee this morning. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the West Seattle to Ballard extension is now not expected to be released before fall. Last estimated release timeline (see this December 2020 WSB report) was “mid-(year),” and that already was a slide past the originally projected release this year. When the DEIS comes out, it will trigger a new round of public comment, and will provide an avalanche of new information about the potential paths that could be taken to get light rail across the Duwamish River and to stations at Delridge, Avalon, and The Junction. The topic of the briefing was the “realignment” process, which we’ve been covering – the pursuit of a new plan/timeline for system expansion projects to address what’s currently estimated as a $7.9 billion “affordability gap” (currently mostly because on new cost estimates, rather than revenue shortfalls). The briefing started an hour and 30 minutes into the meeting (recorded by Seattle Channel):

During the briefing, councilmembers repeatedly asked a question that several ST board members also have asked – isn’t it too soon to make a new plan when the post-pandemic revenue picture isn’t clear? ST in response said it has to make decisions soon about $2 billion worth of projects (not including West Seattle-Ballard), but also insisted that a realignment plan would be a “flexible framework” that could be revisited. West Seattle light rail, originally planned to launch in 2030, already has been delayed a year beyond that, even before further delays that might be part of realignment.

WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: See 3 possible Sound Transit ‘realignment’ scenarios

When the ST3 ballot measure was passed, it promised West Seattle light rail in 2030. Since then, the schedule has slid to 2031. And as a result of the “realignment” process on which Sound Transit has embarked because of projected revenue shortages and cost increases, it could be pushed back even further. The ST Board – mostly local elected officials from King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties – is supposed to adopt a realignment plan next month. At a special board meeting today, three possible scenarios were presented – they’re in the slide deck starting on page 3:

(If you can’t see it there, read it here. Note that these are not necessarily what the board will consider in its final vote.) While the third scenario would deliver all of West Seattle light rail by 2032, the other two would phase it in, starting no sooner than 2035.

Comments during today’s meeting continued to show disagreements between board members on the process itself. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan declared that the board is “barreling toward a decision that’s one of the worst decisions we could make as a board,” amending the plan based on financial projections that already have seen major changes and could see more. King County Executive Dow Constantine also warned against making monumental decisions based on “speculative” information. He suggested the decision could be delayed a bit further until the ST budget process gives them a better picture of finances. King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci, meantime, has been advocating working on scenarios to cut costs rather than delay projects, and she is said to be working with ST staff on an “alternative” along those lines, though it was not ready for presentation today.

No votes were taken at the meeting, but board chair Kent Keel (from the University Place City Council in Pierce County) asked members to send him their thoughts before the next full board meeting June 24th. He also noted that the System Expansion Committee will get an update one week from today on the evaluation of those dramatically increased costs first revealed earlier this year.

WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: To realign or not to realign? Sound Transit board arguments intensify

Sound Transit board members continue to disagree over whether ST needs a full “realignment” plan, which could delay/downsize voter-approved projects including West Seattle light rail. The video above is from ST’s Executive Committee meeting on Thursday morning. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci (from Bellevue) – all board members who are part of the committee – continued to argue the points they made in a letter to Board Chair Kent Keel (from University Place) reported here last month, saying it’s too soon to decide. Keel in turn recapped his reply, insisting the realignment plan – currently scheduled for a July vote – is necessary.

First the board got an update on more possible realignment “scenarios” as well as the latest stats on the “affordability gap,” all shown in this slide deck:

What’s in that presentation is not a complete list of possible scenarios – they’ve been looking at various concepts over the course of multiple meetings in recent months. Possibilities for West Seattle include building to Delridge first – maybe on a 2-year delay beyond the original 2030 plan – or a 5-year delay for the entire extension.

The big point of contention, intensively discussed on Thursday, remains whether a realignment is even needed. When this all first came up last year, the big problem was a pandemic-fueled revenue drop. That started bouncing back, but then came news of dramatically increased cost estimates. Now the latter is more of an issue than the former, according to ST staff, but Durkan argued on Thursday that they don’t have enough cost information for realignment decisions. She also noted that the gap has shrunk by billions already and could shrink further. “The affordability gap could be less and we could build what the voters want and what the climate needs.” Balducci, who has long argued against making these decisions now, said that since this has become much more of a cost gap than a revenue gap, “project-based approaches” might be a solution to the higher cost estimates. Constantine warned that officially setting “lowered expectations” now could “become the default.” Keel contended that whatever they decide would be a “flexible framework” and could be changed. Balducci countered that even if that’s technically true, a realignment vote “would essentially adopt a revamp of our program.” Keel said not responding to the current gap predictions by creating an “affordable plan” via realignment would make ST look financially irresponsible.

The discussion will continue at two upcoming meetings – the System Expansion Committee (which Balducci chairs) on May 13th and the full board meeting on May 27th, which is also when the board is scheduled to hear more about the results of recent community opinion-gathering, which brought in just under 10,000 survey responses, ST staff said on Thursday.

WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: Should Sound Transit hold off on major ‘realignment’?

As Sound Transit rolls toward a “realignment” decision this summer that could delay West Seattle light rail (currently planned for 2031) and other projects for years, there’s a call to slow down, for reasons including a less-dire financial outlook. The suggestion comes in a letter to ST board chair Kent Keel from three board members – Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci. The letter was mentioned during last week’s monthly board meeting; we requested and obtained it today from the mayor’s office:

At the heart of the letter is a request to extend the decision timeline until summer of next year, “to allow the board to examine the pros and cons of extending realignment until additional information is available, including the prospect of acquiring additional new revenues, the benefits of a clearer economic picture, identifying new flexible approaches to station access, incorporating additional information about the nature of capital cost increases and conducting meaningful public engagement.” The letter also notes that when the realignment talk began, the pandemic-related revenue shortfall was the biggest problem, and now that’s only half what it was. But cost increases have emerged as a major challenge (as reported here in January), and might require a different evaluation process than the one they’re using. The letter requests additional information in time for a discussion at the board’s next meeting (May 27th).

ST, meantime, is continuing to ask for your thoughts on “priorities” in the realignment process – there are no specific proposals yet (the board has just been exploring “scenarios”), so they are asking “what’s important to you?” via a short survey on this page. Friday (April 30th) is the deadline.

WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: Sound Transit has questions for you. Plus – see early property-acquisition estimates

Two items of interest as Sound Transit continues planning for West Seattle light rail:

SURVEY: We’ve reported on the “realignment” process that could end this summer with ST pushing back or even canceling projects such as West Seattle light rail (currently projected to open in 2031, already reflecting a one-year delay). Today ST announced a survey to get community opinions before its board members make those decisions. The survey is accessible via this new realignment-information website. The heart of a survey is an open-ended two-part question, after asking respondents to choose the area(s) where they’d like to prioritize transit projects: “Why are the transit projects you’ve prioritized important to you? What would you prioritize when considering delaying, phasing, or modifying future transit projects?”

PROPERTY-ACQUISITION ESTIMATES: While embarking on potential “realignment,” ST is also continuing planning for West Seattle and other not-yet-under-construction projects. The next major stop along the way for WS is the release in a few months of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. ST’s ongoing research also includes estimated cost for acquiring property it might need to build the system. After we reported in January about ST saying its estimates had grown in a big way, West Seattleite Tomasz “Avalon Tom” Biernacki – who visualized early data three years ago – filed a public-disclosure request for additional data to which ST had alluded. He received it, and made a Google Map showing which properties they’ve evaluated:

He explains it as “a simple interactive map where folks can see if their property might be affected by all this. This map includes all the WS properties in the data set. The interactive map only includes West Seattle properties up to the bridge. (The full data set contains all the properties across Seattle.)” The actual cost estimates are on the dataset document, listed by parcel numbers. If you want to look up your property but don’t know your parcel number, you can find it via King County Parcel Viewer (choose ‘property report” once you’re on the page for your property).

Sound Transit, he notes, sent the data with this disclaimer: “Staff has advised us that this document is considered a work in progress and has yet to be thoroughly vetted and confirmed by local, state and federal partners. We would like to emphasize that this information is preliminary and should not be relied upon in any way. It is subject to change as design is refined and as coordination with agency partners continues. Once finalized, information similar to this will be available in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will be available for review in mid-2021.”

Avalon Tom observes, “If you study the map, an interesting pattern emerges. Assuming ST provided me with all the data you can see that they are only really studying two of the alternatives as there is no data in the set for properties that would be affected by the other alternatives. (Or they just did not share that data with me.) They are also padding the acquisition costs. If you do some random Zillow Zestimate checks against what they are estimating they are leaving plenty of headroom for what they call ‘Administrative costs, Relocation & Contingencies’.”

Again, the next formal step in the process is the DEIS release in a few months.

WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: Build in phases? ‘Illustrative scenarios’ shown to Sound Transit board

(Added: Sound Transit meeting video)

Right now, Sound Transit is looking at a possible $11 billion “affordability gap” between the projected cost of what it has planned for the next two decades – including West Seattle light rail – and the projected funding it can count on.

So – as we’ve been reporting since last June – ST is moving toward “realignment” this summer – potentially delaying or downsizing some of the projects for which construction has not begun.

On Thursday, ST staff presented the board with “illustrative scenarios” – stressing repeatedly that these were NOT recommendations or even potential precise options – just the type of scenario that could help cover the gap. Here’s the full slide deck:

They started the discussion with a quick recap of finances, complicated by the January news that not only are revenues down, but projected project costs are up. An independent consultant is reviewing those projected project costs right now, and while the final report isn’t expected until April, they’re presenting a status report at next week’s meeting of the board’s Executive Committee.

Potential state and federal funding increases were recapped by CEO Paul Rogoff and chief financial officer =Tracy Butler. She also pointed out what ST could pursue with voter approval in its jurisdiction (parts of King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties) – an increased debt limit, and/or a $2/month employee head tax.

At that point, board member Claudia Balducci, chair of the King County Council, spoke up to say what she’s said before – she feels this is all premature, that it is way too soon to make huge decisions (from changing projects to possibly asking voters to approve a tax) when the future financial picture is very much in motion.

The presentation proceeded after that. ST’s Don Billen showed four tiers into which the projects could be categorized – or phases of projects, with potential delay timelines. See the full slide deck above for the full systemwide look; of note for our area, one possible scenario could involve completing light rail to Delridge first, then adding Delridge-Junction a few years later.

Right now, pending “realignment,” light rail to West Seattle is supposed to open in 2031, a one-year delay from what the ST3 ballot measure envisioned. ST staff said the potential delays in the “illustrative scenarios” are from the original ST3 timeline, so a two-year delay, for example, would mean 2032.

WHAT’S NEXT: The aforementioned Executive Committee discussion of the project-cost review status is set for next Thursday (March 4th), 10:30 am. Watch for the agenda and viewing info here. The realignment decision is expected in summer. Before then, ST promises “public engagement” this spring.

LIGHT RAIL: Sound Transit board continues ‘brainstorming’ for realignment plan

Will the light-rail plan for West Seattle be delayed or even downsized? The Sound Transit board is planning to make that decision in July, along with deciding the future of other not-yet-under-construction projects. Right now, they’re in the process of deciding how to decide. The board spent three hours in a workshop Thursday centered on what one member described as “brainstorming.” Here’s the video:

The board was planning on realignment even before seeing those recent numbers that showed a sharp increase in cost estimates for upcoming projects including the West Seattle light-rail extension (which is currently projected to open in 2031, one year later than the original plan that voters approved in 2016). As with most if not all public entities, ST’s revenue is suffering from the COVID crunch, and that makes realignment mandatory. Discussion topics at the workshop included not just options for making up some of that lost funding, but also for cutting costs without slashing projects, as shown in the slide deck (below and here):

Potential options are many – reduce the scope, suspend, or even delete projects, or increase revenue via raising fares and fees, raising the car-rental tax or raising their debt capacity, although that would require voters’ approval. Board member Claudia Balducci, current chair of the King County Council, argued that it seems way too early in the process to start deliberating potential tax increases’ merits or lack of them. She suggested the board might be “rushing to a solution … when we haven’t defined the problem.” The idea of possibly dropping projects got strong voices of opposition, as the board’s vice chair, King County Executive Dow Constantine, noted the “overwhelming” voter support for the full plan. He also noted that ST has reason to hope for more federal funding, given that a pro-transit administration has just taken over the White House. And board member Jenny Durkan, mayor of Seattle, urged her colleagues to keep their eyes on how our region will look 10, 20 years from now, as ST continues working to deliver “the entire network.”

WHAT’S NEXT: At the board’s monthly meeting, 1:30 pm this Thursday, they’ll talk with the consultant who’s going to review the cost-increase estimates. The agenda includes information on how to watch/comment. Meantime, your role in the realignment decision is currently scheduled to happen in April, when ST will ask for public feedback.

LIGHT RAIL: Is West Seattle Junction tunneling affordable after all? More new Sound Transit numbers bring estimated cost closer to elevated

One week after revealing new, sharply higher cost estimates for expanding light rail to West Seattle and Ballard (WSB coverage here), Sound Transit went public with another set of numbers, showing that the cost of tunneling into The Junction is suddenly a lot closer to the cost of the default elevated line. These numbers were presented to ST’s System Expansion Committee on Thursday, along with the revised cost estimates first shown to the Executive Committee last week; Thursday’s meeting video is above, and the full slide deck is here. Here are the new West Seattle tunnel-related numbers that were presented:

Those numbers reflect the estimated cost of the entire West Seattle segment, not just the station itself. The new estimate showing as little as $100 million difference between running elevated or tunneling to the heart of The Junction is a big change – previously, the difference was projected to be about $700 million, as shown in this slide from a 2019 presentation:

Whatever the cost differential is, it would require “third-party funding,” but Seattle Mayor and ST board member Jenny Durkan said during the Thursday presentation that she was “heartened” to see the new estimates, observing that they now had a better idea of what extra funding would be needed.

The biggest looming issue, though, remains the gap between ST’s pandemic-shrunken revenues and even the original price tags of the West Seattle-Ballard extension and other projects approved by voters in the ST3 ballot measure. So ST remains on a path to “realignment” of its plans, with a decision due later this year; board members have a workshop planned this Thursday. ST also is proceeding with an independent review of the new cost estimates, expected to be complete in April.

WHAT ELSE IS NEXT: The West Seattle-Ballard project remains in the environmental-study phase, with its Draft Environmental Impact Statement now expected in the middle of this year, opening a new public-comment period. Final routing and station-location decisions are expected in 2023. The extension’s projected launch date already has been pushed back a year to 2031, a date that the upcoming “realignment” could move further down the track.

P.S. You can catch up on what’s proposed, what’s being studied, and how the process works by checking out ST’s “online open house.”

LIGHT RAIL: West Seattle-Ballard project will cost a lot more than expected, Sound Transit board committee told

Even as Sound Transit figures out how to deal with a revenue shortfall, it’s warning that future projects such as West Seattle to Ballard light rail will cost a lot more than originally expected. The ST Board’s Executive Committee was told today about what board chair Kent Keel described as “unprecedented cost increases”: Among them, the cost estimate for the West Seattle-Ballard light-rail extension have risen by more than 50 percent – it’s now estimated to cost more than $12 billion, up from $7 billion when the ST3 ballot measure went to voters. The numbers were part of a presentation to the committee about revised estimates for multiple projects. Here’s the slide deck:

The West Seattle-Ballard project overall is becoming “more complex,” ST’s Don Billen told the board; his part of the presentation starts 49 minutes into the meeting video. (You can read the accompanying memo to the board here.) These are still rough estimates, since the project remains relatively early in the planning process, but the increase is attributed mostly to the increased cost of property acquisition – since development has continued on the potentially needed parcels – and construction.

As an example of the former, the presentation cited the potential need for right-of-way on the Fauntleroy/Alaska corner, including the site of the two-building Legacy Partners project that’s now under construction, if that site were chosen for the Junction station (sites further west drew more attention during the public-comment process). The cost of that site, if needed, was previously estimated at $76 million – and now estimated at $252 million. (Board member Dow Constantine, the West Seattle-residing King County Executive, inferred underground development may look more attractive as a result of numbers like that.)

“While these numbers are sobering, they’re not catastrophic,” said CEO Peter Rogoff, promising that ST is still committed to all the projects. But overall, the increased cost estimate for West Seattle-Ballard (which includes a new downtown tunnel) and other ST projects is so dramatic that ST plans to hire a consultant for an “independent cost review” to be complete before April – as ST continues its “realignment” process, to decide how projects’ schedules will have to change because of the funding gap. (The West Seattle completion date already has been pushed back one year to 2031.) Board members are expected to get a closer look at the “affordability gap” when they meet for a workshop on realignment two weeks from today (January 21st). In the meantime, ST is still working on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the West Seattle-Ballard project, due out later this year.

WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: Sound Transit’s schedule slides

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Even before its “realignment” decision, Sound Transit has slid West Seattle-Ballard light rail back a year, telling the Avalon Neighborhood Group that WS is now set to open in 2031 instead of 2030, Ballard in 2036 instead of 2035.

This neighborhood group has been meeting regularly with ST, and invited us to cover its online meeting last night. We previously reported on the group in July, when they held a fact-finding meeting to learn more about the Yancy/Andover Elevated option added relatively late to the list of options being studied.

Last night’s meeting began with a status report from ST’s Zack Ambrose, going through where the planning process stands. In addition to the pushed-back launch date – pending “realignment” decisions for the entire ST3 plan next year – they’re saying that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) won’t be released until mid-2021, and the final EIS won’t be out until 2023.

One attendee asked if the timeline always had called for two years between the DEIS and final EIS; ST said yes, but past presentations we’ve covered (such as this one in February) suggested otherwise, with the DEIS due in 2021 and the final EIS in 2022.

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WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: Sound Transit launches ‘online open house’ with new maps and more

Sound Transit now says its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for West Seattle/Ballard light rail will be out “mid-2021.” That’s the next big comment period, and the next step toward firming up details of the route, but in the meantime, ST has just launched an “online open house” website to let you know where things stand. Here’s what’s in it:

The updated site features an overview of our environmental review process along with detailed maps, elevation profiles and descriptions of each alternative currently being studied. Additionally, we have new maps for each proposed station and cross-sections for all elevated stations, along with information about how people could walk, roll, bike, or take transit to potential station locations.

The map above, with accompanying cross-section, is just one of those featured, as are station cross-sections like this (click through the dots beneath each station map):

The maps and descriptions outline the possible routing under consideration, including the potential guideway elevations, as well as the possible station locations.

Planning for the voter-approved light-rail extension continues even though a delay is possible – it is scheduled to open in 2030, but ST has been hit by the pandemic economic crunch, and its board will decide within a few months whether to push back the timelines on projects like this that aren’t yet under construction.

VIDEO: Talking transit, current and future, plus bridge updates, @ West Seattle Transportation Coalition

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Though Sound Transit‘s planned-for-2030 West Seattle light rail was the announced spotlight topic of this month’s West Seattle Transportation Coalition meeting, the discussion traveled over many roads.

More than 40 people had called/clicked in by the time Thursday night’s meeting got going, announced WSTC chair Michael Taylor-Judd. Here’s the WSTC recording of the meeting:

First guest: ST board member and King County Executive Dow Constantine, who got the leadoff spot because of time constraints. Veering beyond the stated topic, he noted the overall transit challenges posed by the “lousy revenue system” and “god-awful tax system.”

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WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: Sound Transit spotlight @ WS Transportation Coalition on Thursday

July 21, 2020 1:50 pm
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Another big meeting Thursday- here’s the announcement from the West Seattle Transportation Coalition about their plans for 6:30 pm that night (July 23rd):

We have a great lineup of guests on tap this month:

King County Executive Dow Constantine, King County Council Vice Chair Joe McDermott, Seattle Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, and representatives from Sound Transit will be joining us to discuss the current state of Sound Transit 3 to West Seattle.

Heather Marx from Seattle Department Of Transportation will also be on hand with a West Seattle Bridge update.

Zoom Meeting ID 831 5795 4582
On the web: us02web.zoom.us/j/83157954582
Via phone: +12532158782,,83157954582#

You can check out the past few meetings via the WSTC YouTube channel. You’re also invited to save the date for their August 27th meeting, with our area’s U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal scheduled to talk about federal funding for the West Seattle Bridge.

WEST SEATTLE LIGHT RAIL: Avalon-area neighbors’ fact-finding meeting with Sound Transit

(Sound Transit graphic from October 2019 board meeting)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Eight months after the Sound Transit Board decided to add the “Yancy/Andover Elevated” route to the list of possibilities, some of the West Seattleites who might be in its path are just learning about it.

A group of neighbors in the area west of Avalon Way, including 32nd SW, is meeting weekly to talk about it, and more than 50 of them had an online meeting with Sound Transit reps this past Monday night. We were invited to cover it.

They’re not trying to derail light rail – but they want to understand this potential alignment, how it would affect their neighborhood, and how best to get involved in the review process.

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LIGHT RAIL DELAY? Sound Transit board decides not to decide until next year

The Sound Transit board won’t decide on potentially delaying projects until July 2021.

That follows discussions at recent committee meetings, during which some board members had voiced alarm that “realignment” decisions with decades-long ramifications might be made too soon, too hastily.

At the board’s monthly meeting this afternoon, they agreed to a timeline (see it here) that would keep all planning of Sound Transit 3 (and remaining ST2) projects moving forward for now. As she had done at an Executive Committee meeting, CFO Tracy Butler reminded the board that current financial projections have ST coffers falling as much as $12 billion short through the life of Sound Transit 3’s plan (which has some projects in the 2040s, with West Seattle light rail currently scheduled to open in 2030).

The board also was reminded that if they chose, for example, to add a 5-year delay to all in-planning projects, that would be “affordable” within current reduced-revenue estimates. But planning director Don Billen also reiterated that a one-size-fits-all approach like that might not be wise, so the agency will embark on a more-nuanced process, including “public engagement” early next year, before finalizing a realigned plan next summer. (You can see the criteria they’ll use in the slide deck from the meeting.)

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.”