During the 2016 election debate over the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 (ST3) transportation package, concerns were raised about the regional transit agency’s history of delivering projects well after their original timelines and far exceeding the initial cost estimates. Those issues appear to have materialized, as the agency’s board of directors voted earlier this month to delay – for up to 10 years – projects not yet under construction amid a $6.5 billion funding gap only exacerbated by plummeting ridership figures. The board is now preparing its six-year transit development plan required under state law, with the regional light rail system expected to expand from 22 miles to 62 miles by 2024.
While it is a far cry from the potential $12 billion gap the agency contemplated last June, the draft transit development plan reveals an additional dilemma: an 85-90 percent drop in riders Sound Transit experienced between 2019-2020.
That decrease includes:
- ST Express ridership down from 17.5 million to 6.2 million, the lowest since 2002
- Sounder ridership down from 4.6 million to 1.3 million, the lowest since 2005
- Tacoma Link ridership down from 937,000 to 433,000, the lowest since 2003
- Link ridership down from 25.1 million to 9.7 million, the lowest since 2013
Sound Transit has previously faced dwindling ridership along an existing bus rapid transit route from Eastgate in Bellevue to Issaquah, a route where one ST3 light rail project is planned. The agency ultimately suspended service on that route.
While some of the agency’s woes can be attributed to the business closures and public health restrictions imposed by Governor Jay Inslee in response to COVID-19, Sound Transit has been exploring the issue since early 2020. Agency officials have attributed the rising projects costs to rising land value and construction costs.
In a Jan. 5 memo to Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, Deputy CEO Kimberly Farley wrote that “As we move this next wave of projects toward baselining their budgets and schedules in the coming years, it is clear from the latest estimates that the ultimate costs will be higher than previously estimated. These challenges are also present in other local projects and other areas of the country where rapid population growth, urban development and economic growth have driven up costs of construction and real estate.”
In 2016, a Sound Transit spokesperson told Lens that ST3 was “built to accommodate a more standard ebb and flow of the economy,” with 22 percent of the project cost estimates for allocated/unallocated contingencies, along with a seven percent reserve.
Meanwhile, the following light rail projects are under construction:
- Northgate link extension, scheduled to open in a month
- Hilltop Tacoma link extension, 82 percent complete and schedule to open in 2022
- East link extension, 92 percent complete and scheduled to open in 2023
- Lynnwood extension, 44 percent complete and scheduled to open in 2024
- Federal Way link extension, 36 percent complete and scheduled to open in 2024
- Downtown Redmond link extension, 33 percent complete and scheduled to open in 2024
While these projects are not affected by the agency’s realignment, others such as the Ballard-Smith Cove link will be delayed based on a tiered system; that project now has an opening date of 2039, a four-year delay.
In addition to the new timeline delay of two years from 2030 to 2032, the $3 billion Tacoma Dome Link extension is already 10 percent overbudget, even though it’s still in the planning phase.
The delay is even longer for the Everett light rail projects. Originally scheduled for 2036, the completion dates were later pushed back to 2037; under the new tier system, one of the lines won’t be finished until 2041, and the parking facility won’t be completed until 2046.
For Everett residents still around to see the line open and old enough to remember, it will be a promise 47 years in the making since the then-Sound Transit Board promised in 1994 that “light rail service to Everett shall be given first priority” in the second phase of its regional plan.
Sound Transit has had a long history of project cost overrun and timeline delays going as far back as 2001, when the agency revealed the first phase of its light rail line from the University District to SeaTac was $1 billion overbudget, $1.5 billion in 2021 when adjusted for inflation, and three years behind schedule.
The agency also faced similar financial struggles as it does now during the Great Recession, which ultimately left it with a $4.5 billion shortfall in ST2’s 15-year financial forecast. The loss of revenue forced the delay of ST2 projects or, in the case of the Federal Way light rail extension, divide the segments into separate projects and incorporate one of them into ST3. In 2018, the costs for the initial Federal Way project went up by $460 million, while the East Link segment in 2017 ran up an additional $225 million.
Some of the latest Sound Transit projects with cost overruns include the West Seattle-Ballard light rail line – still in the planning phase – which is now expected to cost $5 billion more than the original $7 billion initially estimated with ST3.
The next Sound Transit Board meeting is scheduled for Sept. 23.