Placing Guard Rails On Sound Transit's Budget

Placing Guard Rails On Sound Transit’s Budget

Sound Transit recently found that building the light rail extension from downtown Seattle across on the Interstate 90 Bridge to Bellevue will cost $712 million, $225 million more than its initial estimate. Republican state lawmakers behind SB 5892 want to force the regional transit agency to obtain voter reauthorization if these projects go too far over-budget. The bill would require a new vote if after two years following the project’s approval its overall budget is 100 percent greater than the initial estimate.

The legislation passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee Wednesday, March 29. At a Monday, March 27 public hearing, proponents argued that it would create greater accountability for Sound Transit, which has a history of over-budgeted projects. However, some committee members expressed fear that voter rejection could cause harm to neighborhoods left with uncompleted projects.

SB 5892’s primary sponsor is State Sen. Phi Fortunato (R-31). Cosponsors include Vice President Pro Tempore Jim Honeyford (R-15) and State Sens. Dino Rossi (R-45) and John Braun (R-20).

Fortunato: Be Honest About Project Costs

Fortunato told the committee March 27 the bill’s message to Sound Transit is “be fair, be honest. Don’t come up with your lowball and then say that we’re over-budget halfway through.”

“I find it hard to believe that somebody would go through this project and then say ‘Oh, wait a minute, halfway through the engineering we just figured out now that it’s hard to build a train on a floating bridge,’” he added. “You didn’t know that when you put that together?”

SB 5892 is one of several bills introduced this session that reflect growing anxiety over ST3, which was approved by voters in November. One bill Fortunato cosponsored would reform the criteria Sound Transit uses to calculate the ST3 car tab fee. Two other bills would allow cities and counties within Sound Transit’s jurisdiction to nullify new ST3 taxes.

A History Of Higher Project Costs

Others are worried that the $54 billion cost estimate could prove low; 16 years ago, Sound Transit’s light rail line from University District to Seatac was $1 billion over its $2.5 billion budget.

In response to the new cost estimate for the I-90 Bridge light rail segment, Mariya Frost writes that “Sound Transit officials like to claim that their projects are on time and on budget, and unfortunately, this is yet another example of why this claim is often untrue.” She is the Director, Coles Center for Transportation at the Washington Policy Center.

SB 5892 originally called for reauthorization if a project’s budget went 20 percent over, but was amended at the March 29 executive session before receiving a “do pass” recommendation. The budget figure would include the project’s contingency costs.

The Cost of Leaving Projects Unfinished

Nevertheless, the bill sparked concerns from committee members such as State Sen. Dean Takko (D-19), who asked Fortunato what would happen to the uncompleted projects if voters rejected additional funding. Fortunato replied, “I guess Sound Transit would figure out how they’re going to finish that project.”

He added one way to do that is with “better planning.”

“We got to have some kind of voter approval to prevent this thing from spiraling out of control,” he said.

Another worried committee member was Democratic Floor Leader Sen. Marko Liias (D-21), who voted against the bill. At the March 29 executive session, he told colleagues that “I appreciate Senator Fortunato’s work to bring accountability and focus to Sound Transit’s work,” but “I do have a concern about the precedent in this bill having voters reauthorize locally approved projects…I think it sets a bad precedent.

“I think this is a little bit of a bill searching for a problem to solve,” he added.

At the March 27 public hearing, he suggested that there might be legitimate reasons for a project’s costs to go up unexpectedly, such as increased steel and concrete prices.

Fortunato replied, “that’s why you build in a contingency fund. If we’re planning on finishing this…in 2041…how do we know what the labor cost is going to be? How do we know what the concrete cost is going to be? It’s an educated guess.”

Liias’ apprehension was shared by Majority Assistant Whip Sen. Maureen Walsh (R-16), who asked Fortunato if “you got a partially finished project, are you not incurring additional expense by leaving a half-built bridge or whatever the heck the project is? Don’t you think that’s a little bit more egregious on the community?”

“I worry about the issue of having a project hanging in someone’s neighborhood that’s not finished. It seems a little backward approach,” she added.

Fortunato told committee members he was open to amendments addressing their concerns.  “I guess we have to answer the question…who down here represents the taxpayers? So we have to have some constraints. If not this, I would be welcome to accept a striking amendment to have some other constraint. “

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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