We're still in denial about Sound Transit costs

New evidence appears for how costs are escalating and deadlines are stretching way into the future of light rail in the region. And there' a new consumer of the light rail Kool-Aid: Mayor McGinn.
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Light rail: 'smart' planning emphasizes putting people near transit

New evidence appears for how costs are escalating and deadlines are stretching way into the future of light rail in the region. And there' a new consumer of the light rail Kool-Aid: Mayor McGinn.

The Seattle City Council has joined Gov. Chris Gregoire and the legislature in signaling Mayor Mike McGinn that it simply won't tolerate holding up the 520 bridge project for another several years to meet his demand for light rail on the bridge.

There are other huge and expensive capital projects pending. Decisions loom on the Mercer Street project, Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel replacement, waterfront seawall, new rail trolleys, and McGinn's proposed extensions of light rail to West Seattle and Ballard. What has priority? What can we afford? What should be rejected?

Thus far McGinn has only suggested, in general, that tolls should finance transportation projects and that most such decisions should be made via ballot measure.

If that's all the guidance we have, the council will need to step in again. Our state and local governments, just as the federal government, face big funding shortfalls. It will be a struggle, in Seattle, just to maintain essential services. Some priorities must be set among the capital projects now on the table.

The place to start is with the Sound Transit light rail system. I regard light rail as a horrendous waste of scarce public resources and the most cost-ineffective way to move people in this region to their destinations. It is, as former WDOT Director Doug MacDonald recently said, "not a transportation project but a construction project." Yet McGinn, who has been pushing for light rail on the SR520 bridge, which isn't even in any plans, seems unwilling to step on the Sound Transit brakes at all. He and the majority of the region's elected officials have thus far chosen to ignore the cost-benefit facts and consume the light-rail Kool Aid.

Recent Sound Transit actions and documents provide an alarming glimpse of the future. First, Sound Transit proposes a general fare increase later this week. Farebox-recovery ratios — that is, the percentage of operating costs covered by passenger fares — have been disappointing. In 2009, Sound Transit Express buses recovered 22.4 percent of operating and maintenance costs from farebox revenues; Sounder commuter rail, 22.2 percent; Central Link light rail (in Seattle), 10.6 percent; and the free Tacoma Link light rail, zero percent.

Yet according to the original Sound Move plan, the "minimum acceptable level" for rail systems was presented as 40 percent. However, the projected new fare schedule shows the Tacoma line continuing to run solely on public funds and Seattle's Central Link light rail raising fares only 25 cents for adults while lowering fares for senior, disabled, and youth riders.

By contrast, Regional Express bus fares would rise $1 for adults, with smaller increases for senior, disabled, and youth riders. Altogether, the increases are projected to generate 2.5 percent more fare revenue from light rail and 22.5 percent more from Regional Express bus service. Thus, the burden on bus transit is 9 times greater than on light rail.

This represents another example of Sound Transit's continuing effort to subsidize light rail at the expense of more efficient bus transit.

Second, Sound Transit's 2010 financial plan shows it has budgeted some $57 billion for its Phase I and Phase II projects, 1997-2040, with light rail getting the lion's share of the money. But that would cover only 53 miles of its planned 125-mile light rail network (not including McGinn's projected Seattle extensions).

According to financial/transportation analyst Jim MacIsaac, a Sound Transit critic, it will also take an additional 13 years of bond payments beyond 2040, at nearly $600 million per year, to retire the debt. Financing costs, MacIsaac concludes, would bring the overall total to about $65 billion. (For comparison, the notorious Boston Big Dig, after its overruns, came in at $18 billion). At that point, 72 miles of the 125-mile system would remain to be built.

The price originally cited for the entire 125-mile network was $13 billion. Its completion was projected for 2020.

Local elected officials and media generally remain in denial about light rail realities. But, as the financial noose tightens, reexamination will be necessary by state and county governments and the city of Seattle. In the meantime, McGinn keeps pushing for more, with a "What, me worry?" plan for its financing.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.