Sound Transit's Money Pit: The High Cost of the Sounder North Line

Sound Transit's finances are prompting a lot of head scratching

Many of Sound Transit’s problems can be traced back to the rosy outlook of the earlier administration that put together the 1996 Sound Move proposal. That proposal, which included the light rail system and 81 miles of commuter rail as well as other transit improvements, estimated the cost at $3.9 billion. But as Sounder and light rail expenses climbed, construction was delayed, and inflation cut purchasing power, it quickly became clear that Sound Transit had vastly underestimated the price tag for the system.

Observers say Sound Transit has improved its operations since Earl took over as CEO in 2001. “I think she turned the agency around,” says Bruce Agnew, a former COP member and current director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development, a transportation think tank.

 “We’re always trying to find ways to do things more economically,” Earl says. “The old Sound Transit was ‘overpromise and underdeliver.’ Ours is ‘underpromise and overdeliver.’” She pointed to the current Westlake-to–Husky Stadium light rail extension, which in April was running $107 million under budget and was five and a half months ahead of schedule.

A big test of Earl’s administration will be her execution of the Sound Transit 2 proposal passed by voters in 2008 as a sort of sequel to Sound Move. It calls for spending $11.8 billion to build 36 more miles of light rail, extending the system to the east as far as Overlake, about a mile and a half from the Microsoft campus, to the north as far as Lynnwood and to the south close to Federal Way—for 55 miles of light rail.

Already, the agency has chosen not to build the 2.3 miles of new track that would have extended light rail to the south near Federal Way—due to revenue shortfalls. Virtually all of Sound Transit’s funding comes from sales taxes collected in five subareas. Although all regions have seen tax revenues plunge, South King County was particularly hard hit with a 40.7 percent decline in sales taxes. As a result of the shorter line, Sound Transit has reduced its 2030 weekday ridership target to 280,000, from its original of 286,000. That number, if achieved, still represents an impressive tenfold increase in ridership compared to today.

The agency continues to be bound by costly decisions made in the past. Sound Transit’s 2013 budget, for example, includes $10.2 million toward an $18.3 million plan to build a second Sounder platform in Mukilteo. The plan includes $9 million to build a pedestrian overpass with two elevator towers for crossing the tracks. At present, the trains use track crossovers to stop at a single platform for the 44 riders getting on or off each train on an average weekday. Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick says the agency is required to build the expensive two-platform station as part of its original right-of-way deal with BNSF.

But some costs still seem unnecessarily high. The 2013 budget features $15.1 million toward a $46 million replacement of the temporary Tukwila Sounder station. This includes $3 million for oversight of contractors and $11 million for real estate—$8.37 million of which will primarily cover parking.

University of Washington professor of civil and environmental engineering Scott Rutherford, who sat on a Sound Transit–appointed expert panel that reviewed Sound Move before it went on the ballot, says regional geography explains some the agency’s big bills. “It’s a hard place to build anything, that’s for sure,” he says, referring to the region’s wasp-waisted geography. “It’s not like Dallas, where they just build another ring road.”

But Rutherford says another factor is the Puget Sound process. “I tell people who come here from out of town that the neighborhood is the highest form of government here,” he says. Sound Transit policy, for example, guarantees services and projects to each of the five subareas in its taxing district “generally in proportion to the level of revenues each subarea generates.” That policy, dating from the 1996 Sound Move initiative, helped snare votes from outlying areas with fewer transit needs. But, in the words of Martin Duke, editor-in-chief of the Seattle Transit blog, it has also obliged Sound Transit to “spend like crazy in outlying areas to offset the huge capital costs in the core.”

Rail critic John Niles says the mandate “was certainly a factor in excessive capital on some projects,” including the heavy costs spent on the Sounder north line project.

“Serving the destinations that our board and community members felt represented the highest priorities has required using more costly configurations to a greater extent than many regions,” concedes Sound Transit’s Patrick. Earl says she recognizes the problem and has tried to control it. Scope creep—the demands of local jurisdictions, unexpected environmental mitigations and the like—constitutes “one of our biggest challenges,” she says.  Her policy on local jurisdictions seeking project add-ons: “If you want extras after the initial scoping, you pay for it,” she says.

Still, she says, the subarea equity policy helps win support for public transit from local jurisdictions “because they know that...the money they’re spending is coming to help build transit in their geographical area.”