Sound Transit is projecting an additional $4 billion in costs for light rail to Ballard and West Seattle. The projected cost of the two lines jumped from $7.9 billion in 2019 to $12.1 billion–a jump exceeding 50%. The agency revealed the bad news at the Sound Transit Board meeting yesterday and blamed skyrocketing costs for land acquisition, labor, and construction materials. In fact, property costs alone jumped $2.13 billion–a 263% increase.
While the Ballard and West Seattle light rail extension numbers were the most dramatic, all Sound Transit 3 light rail lines are seeing cost escalations. The Tacoma Dome Link Extension costs have climbed from $2.4 billion in 2015 to $3.3 billion as of the update yesterday. The culprit there is the agency’s determination that an extra three miles of elevated rather than at-grade rail will be needed due to concerns about drainage and disrupting indigenous burial sites as the route passes through the Puyallup Reservation.
The presentation didn’t detail Everett Link or Issaquah Link cost projections, but noted they had taken a hit as well. On a positive note, Sound Transit 2 remains on track with 62 miles of light rail expected to be open by 2024, with Lynnwood Link and Federal Way Link opening then and East Link a year earlier in 2023. Northgate Link will open later this year, and revolutionize transit in North Seattle, even if King County Metro’s bus restructure fell victim to budget cuts.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff tried to assure the board. “While these numbers are sobering, they’re not catastrophic,” he said, suggesting the plan could be fine-tuned and scope adjusted to control costs.
Deputy CEO Kimberly Farley cited transit project examples from San Francisco, San José, and Los Angeles to show rapidly escalating construction costs are an issue regionwide. In a official memo, Farley described how Sound Transit arrived at the new estimates and laid out next steps.
“Given this cost growth, I have initiated an independent assessment of Sound Transit’s updated cost estimates and underlying methodologies,” Farley said. “It will include a focus on what actions Sound Transit can take to reduce costs and update its estimating approaches going forward. The independent assessment will be completed in sufficient time to inform the upcoming capital program realignment process.”
Over-engineering is partially to blame
Some of Sound Transit’s cost escalation is unavoidable; the agency can’t control how much building materials cost or construction contractors charge. They can’t prevent Trump from starting a trade war and increasing the cost of steel with his tariffs. Nonetheless, a portion of the spiking costs seems to be attributable to Sound Transit over-engineering stations and guideway to require greater, more expensive property acquisition than is really necessary.
The presentation’s prime example with West Seattle Link illustrates the point. The agency says they expect they’ll need to acquire three brand new apartment buildings on Fauntleroy Way to site the station and track for the Alaska Junction Station. Doing so is projected to cost approximately $250 million and require relocating 306 households, the agency said.
However, better contouring the alignment to Fauntleroy Way SW would likely avoid demolishing these new apartments and save upwards $250 million. Fitting the guideway and station into the Fauntleroy right-of-way and the lower-value properties to the north–a Shell gas station and Les Schwab tire center–appears doable. Since it’s near a station, trains would not be moving quickly at this point.
A station needs to have straight track, so, if this can’t be arranged at the SW Alaska St intersection, a simple fix would be to site just to the south or north along (or straddling) Fauntleroy Way, avoiding the kink. Fauntleroy Way right-of-way is 90 feet wide north of Alaska Street and 80 feet south of it. It’s a wide street that can accommodate elevated rail in its envelope and a station too–though Sound Transit will need to acquire property for staging regardless.
The Urbanist has reached out to Sound Transit to inquire why the agency isn’t avoiding these three costly properties by tightening the turn. Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick did offer a general statement, but a full response is still pending.
“The Board has selected preferred alternatives for much of the alignment, other alternatives are also being studied as part of the current work to publish a Draft Environmental Impact Statement,” Patrick said in an email. “And the Board won’t select the final alternative to be built until after publishing a Final Environmental Impact Statement. Those three parcels are in play because of the specific alternative that intersects with that location.”
“We always try to minimize impacts to property,” public information officer Rachelle Cunningham added.
While $250 million is only 6% of the $4 billion cost escalation, if this is a pattern and other stations and guideway have been over-engineered to require expensive property acquisition, then it could add up. Like Alaska Junction, Ballard is booming and the station area imagined near 14th Avenue NW and NW Market Street has seen large buildings go in too, as has Interbay near W Dravus Street. It’s a good problem to have to know that light rail will serve a dense and growing neighborhood, but it does make property acquisition more expensive and fraught.
Property costs and construction costs have continued to spike in Seattle right through the recession, so it’s hard to imagine a respite any time soon. Prime properties won’t be getting any cheaper, as King County Executive Dow Constantine argued, saying we must forge ahead.
Fodder for opponents of elevated light rail
Some West Seattleites’ dream of tunneling the light rail line to reduce the “eyesore” and noise. Others are pushing to replace rail with a gondola to lower costs and add whimsy. Elevated rail remains the more expandable and best fit, especially if the land acquisition pickle can be solved. That said, obviously $4 billion in added costs will bolster the case for alternatives, as the West Seattle SkyLink group was quick to note.