With inevitable fallout from the pandemic, Sound Transit has pushed ahead with a program realignment process for voter-approved Sound Transit 3 projects. In a meeting on Thursday, the Board of Directors Executive Committee met to discuss which criteria should be used to screen program realignment, if projects need to be modified or delayed. A preliminary motion on criteria passed out the committee without recommendation to the full board alongside a companion motion to study scenarios with more financing resources.

At an earlier workshop meeting, the Sound Transit Board of Directors were briefed on likely budget challenges facing the transit agency in the years ahead and options that could be sought to keep the overall Sound Transit capital program affordable. That could include a mix of new taxes, better financing tools, trimmed project scopes, and splitting up or delaying projects. Another promising option is simply increasing debt capacity, which would eliminate affordability issues on the horizon. Future state and federal governments could be much more transit-friendly, too, pumping significant sums of grants into the hands of the transit agency.

During Thursday’s briefing, agency staff emphasized again that delaying the entire Sound Transit 3 capital program would ensure the whole program is affordable. That would stop major expenditures across all subareas and allow tax receipts to pile up in the bank while the recession works itself out. That could, however, mean no new major transit expansions until 2030–six years after the Sound Transit 2-funded Lynnwood Link light rail extension opens. The option seems like political suicide and likely dead on arrival, but agency staff provided them nevertheless to show that affordability could be solved in a single program decision.

Agency staff has said delaying all Sound Transit 3 projects by five years would solve financial constraints, sliding program completion past 2041. (Sound Transit)
Agency staff has said delaying all Sound Transit 3 projects by five years would solve financial constraints, sliding program completion past 2041. (Sound Transit)

Agency staff also provided a slide showing eight initial criteria that the board could consider in making program realignments. These criteria touch on objective and subjective measures to screen projects. They include things like the ridership potential, connection to Regional Centers, and possibility for third-party funding of specific Sound Transit 3 projects.

The eight agency staff-compiled criteria shared with committee members. (Sound Transit)
The eight agency staff-compiled criteria shared with committee members. (Sound Transit)

The process screening process that agency staff has outlined, includes the following:

  1. Develop the criteria framework;
  2. Build out program realignment scenarios;
  3. Present scenarios to board for review;
  4. Refine program realignment scenarios;
  5. Repeat review by the board; and
  6. Adjust program schedules and funding.

The overall process would seek to create affordable program realignment scenarios that include a severe recession scenario. It would also include consideration of how to maintain shovel-readiness for projects in the event that the situation improves on the horizon to deliver projects earlier, such as a windfall in state and federal grants or other third-party revenue.

Executive Committee Chair Kent Keel started his remarks by saying it is “not a question of if, but a question of when” capital projects should be reshuffled to deal with financial realities ahead. The sooner a program realignment plan could be devised by the board, he said, the better off the transit agency would be in resetting Sound Transit 3 in a smart way. To allay some concerns, Chair Keel also emphasized that program realignment would not entail cutting major projects from the overall plan.

Red highlights criteria not included in the draft motion. (Sound Transit)
Red highlights criteria not included in the draft motion. (Sound Transit)
Red highlights criteria not included in the draft motion. (Sound Transit)
Red highlights criteria not included in the draft motion. (Sound Transit)

Turning to the criteria for program realignment, Chair Keel shared his draft motion (Motion M2020-36) containing eight criteria, which are based off of agency staff-compiled criteria presented at the previous meeting. Five of the criteria are core development principles for Sound Transit 3 and the other three criteria are additional considerations that agency staff provided. Five other criteria that agency staff presented (i.e., operability, sequencing, constructibility, readiness, and equity) did not make the cut. Initial screening criteria for system affordability and subarea affordability also went unmentioned.

Several members of the committee commented on the proposed criteria. Roger Millar, a member of the board and Secretary of the state transportation department, said that he was “not really enamored by the project tenure criteria.” He explained that in his agency, many of the longest projects sitting around on the shelf were simply reflective of the fact that were not a priority. Millar suggested the same situation could apply to some project on the Sound Transit 3 project list, but he did not name any specific projects that might fit that bill. Separately, Millar wondered why subarea equity was not a listed criteria despite being an agency-wide foundational principle.

King County Executive Dow Constantine then weighed in agreeing with Millar on the project tenure criteria. He said that many communities to be served by projects would not fit the bill for project tenure since they were not specified in the original Sound Move (Sound Transit 1) measure, despite having been rapid transit candidates as far back as the failed Forward Thrust measures in 1968 and 1970. One could argue that communities like Ballard and West Seattle have been waiting patiently much longer than Tacoma or Everett, but the proposed criteria would dismiss that fact. Constantine was ultimately of two minds, saying that the criteria would be used as “talking points” among boardmembers to support projects they perceive as the highest priority and that getting “hung up on one criteria” was not necessarily useful in the larger exercise in determining program realignment.

Paul Roberts, an Everett City Councilmember, said that he was generally supportive of the agency staff-compiled criteria and hit back against Millar’s assertion that the tenure criteria may be unwarranted. Roberts predictably argued that Everett has been waiting a very long time for light rail to arrival, not mentioning that Snohomish County put all its eggs in the Sounder basket in the original Sound Move measure rather than building out light rail sooner. Saying that project tenure was an important criteria for communities, he essentially argued his way for completion of the spine to Everett.

Taking a very different tact, King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci suggest that the “first and primary consideration” that the board should have is what level of service should be provided through transit, including when and how to deliver it. She was concerned about criteria and more interested in mapping scenarios out so that boardmembers could clearly see the implications, things that screening matrices and tables might not do as well. Balducci said that by doing so, could the board could ask questions like how a program realignment could serve the most people or the most places, or provide the most amount of services as soon as possible before funding is tapped out.

Councilmember Balducci also echoed sentiments of her colleagues that Sound Transit could build out stations but hold off on fully completed light rail tracks until funding became available, operating exceptional bridge bus service in the interim. If program spending cuts were necessary, she said that the board could do this in stages rather than a blanket set of cuts since the future is fairly murky.

Rounding out the committee members for general discussion, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier said that he generally supported the draft criteria. He was especially supportive of the ridership potential, connecting centers, and completing the spine criterions. Though, Dammeier emphasized that recent events with pandemic, employment, and social unrest over racism made socio-economic equity a timely and relevant criteria to consider for program realignment.

Chair Keel had hoped that the committee members would support his motion as-is with the staff-compiled criteria. However, some members opposed wholesale adoption of the motion. Councilmember Balducci said that it felt as if the committee was moving too quickly on deciding criteria without the input of the larger body and that there was not enough information to know if these criteria were the right ones. Executive Constantine agreed, suggesting that it would be a risky move if the criteria would later create Board of Directors-wide dissatisfaction with realignment scenarios and decisions down the line.

Hearing these and other opinions, Chair Keel moved a modified version of his motion for adoption that would send it to the full board, but without a recommendation on the listed criteria. This would ensure that program realignment criteria would appear before the full board meeting this month, but allow time for members to weigh which criteria they want in a final motion–possibly criteria not already contained in the list. Keel also noted that he wants agency staff to come up with multiple realignment scenarios that account for different revenue situations. A severe recession is just one possible scenario, but a moderate recession, third-party revenue, and change in debt capacity could greatly change the equation.

Relatedly, Executive Constantine proposed a companion motion (Motion M2020-37) that would direct agency staff to develop program realignment scenarios based upon additional financial resources. Specifically, the scenarios would need to consider different outcomes where tools such as state or federal funding, or increased debt capacity support capital program objectives. Constantine seemed particularly optimistic that federal funding could come through in the years ahead. His motion passed to the full board with recommendation for adoption.

Later this month at the full board meeting, the Board of Directors will weigh what the final criteria framework motion looks like and whether or not to proceed with the alternative financing motion. Then in the summer and fall period, Sound Transit hopes to proceed ahead with development of realignment scenarios based upon those motions for further board consideration and refinement. Taking this another other factors into consideration, Sound Transit expects to provide an updated financial plan in the fall and a transit improvement plan in the winter, which will both be predicated on a program realignment plan–whatever that end up looking like. But so far, there is little clarity on where the board is headed on the overall effort with many ideas still hanging in the air.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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transit rider

For criteria, supposedly the spine is first. That means Tacoma and Everett, but along I-5 as originally proposed for the latter, which would shave $1 billion and an extra 5 years construction time that was needless and wasteful to begin with. All of the spurs – West Seattle, issaquah, and Ballard – should be cut or at least modified. It’s horrendous how much the Ballard line costs relative to others, no doubt due to crossing the Ship Canal. A better option than one that duplicates an existing BRT line would be an east/west line from/to Ballard from the University District Station, a well-traveled corridor for at least 40 years that is long overdue for service.

I’m sympathetic to the West Seattle extension due to the recent debacle with the West Seattle Bridge. I could go along with an Issaquah to South Bellevue line, but rather than heading northward to serve Google in Kirkland, a dubious adventure that duplicates part of East Link, the plan for that should be revised to turn south, with the plan to eventually reach Tukwila International Station. For the Everett line, it should be truncated at 128th/Mariner, the equivalent of the upcoming Northgate extension in terms of the number of new stations and the length, but without the time and cost of tunneling. Added to my aforementioned BRT loop, and the equivalent of the present plan for Everett Link would be realized. However, I’d modify the plan for rail to follow I-5 as originally proposed as ridership and density warrant.

transit rider

Re: AJ’s comment, Snohomish may have “the best express bus network in North America,” but accessing it is suspect.

1. The north side of the ramps at 164th/Ash Way have not been completed, though I suspect that they’ve been designed, with those designs gathering dust in some Indiana Jones-worthy warehouse somewhere in downtown Seattle. Completing this would eliminate buses having to weave across 3 “general purpose” lanes between 128th and 164th and visa-versa to access this facility. Further, this adds traffic to 164th and the ascent into Ash Way itself, where planners have not seen fit to have a traffic light to exit that facility. When there’s a snow/ice event, this is beyond a nightmare, as buses back up onto I-5, on 164th, up the hill on Ash Way, and inside the facility itself, where a jackknifed articulated bus results in everything standing still. I saw all of this stuck on a bus for an hour and a half to reach the Ash Way transit center from 1/2 mile north on the freeway on a cold December a couple of years ago. If the ramps were completed, southbound buses like the one I was on would stay in the HOV lanes and go right into the facility, then continue south on the existing southbound HOV ramp if going to downtown Seattle, onto the general onramp if going to the Eastside. Going north, the buses would continue onto the northbound HOV ramps and not use Ash Way or 164th at all. The obstacle: Sound Transit, which has had this on their list of projects for ST-2 and ST-3 with favorable cost/benefit ratings, but it has been an early cut, most recently in favor of bicycle lanes in jurisdictions. The county has been attempting to get an overpass for this area so that the east/west bus rapid transit buses that are slated to be added to this area in 2024 can have their own way across the freeway and not 164th.
2. Access to the 112th freeway station is limited. ST buses from Everett stop there, but getting to this station from southwest Everett is problematic. Customers there used to have the option of taking a bus north for 25 minutes to Everett Station to catch the ST buses going south, but ET cut back that service. The east/west Everett Transit #12 only goes far as the flagging Everett Mall, with connections beyond that spotty or non-existent. The ST #513 from Boeing/Everett only serves the nearly-vacant Eastmont Park & Ride, which this transit service is the only service to that facility, but not 112th due to their planners feeling that it would inconvenience the handful of riders of the #513. At present, this route is “peak only,” so riders can’t take this bus from the south to get to a south Everett job where the work shift begins in the morning. There’s also no single-bus connection to the bus rapid transit that goes by near the Mariner Park & Ride from the freeway buses, though the county has been attempting to get a bypass overpass there as well.

Sounder North is a colossal waste of taxpayer money that serves stations that already have express bus service. That money would be better spent on improvements in connections such as the above as well as completing a BRT loop to/from downtown Everett to Boeing, Paine Field, and Bothell, which simply involves additional buses, hiring laid off drivers, and adding signage to existing BRT blue stations.

AJ McGauley

” not mentioning that Snohomish County put all its eggs in the Sounder basket in the original Sound Move measure rather than building out light rail sooner.” That’s not accurate and frankly disingenuous. It’s important to have the correct historical context when understanding why Snohomish and Pierce are focused on completing the spine … it’s not just political rhetoric to elevate their projects over other subareas.

Inaccurate: Sounder North was viewed as an early win in Sound Move, but light rail to Everett has been in the Long Range Plan since the beginning. Only 4 of the 14 specified capital projects in Sound Move were related to commuter rail. Further, Snohomish has spent far more O&M on STX routes than Sounder over the life of the Sound Move program. Finally, Snohomish has been paying into regional Link assets since the beginning, notably the original OMF. It would be more accurate to say Snohomish spread their eggs between commuter rail, bus service, HOV investments, and P&Rs. Yes, Snohomish waited until ST2 to go all in on Link, but Sound Move is explicit in framing a network of express bus routes buttressed by P&R and HOV improvements as a bridge towards future LRT.

If anything, I would commend Snohomish, through both ST and CT, for building arguably the best express bus network in North America and thereby setting the stage for ST2 and ST3.

Disingenuous: Given Sound Move only funded LRT to Northgate, taking the Sounder North monies and putting them all into LRT would have gotten Snohomish what, exactly? A Link station in Shoreline in 2021 rather than 2023? Sounder North certainly hasn’t preformed as well as planned, but expecting Snohomish to anticipate that and go all in on Link is rich in hindsight.

Rather than pick at Sounder, a more illustrative example would be the Montlake freeway flyer station. This was a major project for Snohomish in Sound Move, but will be rendered superfluous when the Montlake Terrace station opens. Do we criticism Snohomish for invest in high quality bus infrastructure that will end up being used for <30 years, or do we acknowledge the flyer stop was built at a time when there was no funding in place for Link north of Northgate? I think the latter would be a more honest assessment.