Delays and cost overruns continue to weigh on Sound Transit projects

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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 well-planned projects. past their original schedule and far exceeding initial cost estimates. These problems appear to have materialized, as the agency’s board of directors voted earlier this month to delay – up to 10 years – projects not yet under construction amid a $ 6.5 billion funding gap only exacerbated by falling ridership figures. The board of directors is currently preparing its six-year public transport development plan required by state law, with the regional light rail system expected to grow from 22 miles to 62 miles by 2024.

Although this is a far cry from the potential gap of $ 12 billion that the agency envisioned last June, the public transit development plan project reveals an additional dilemma: an 85% to 90% drop in the number passengers that Sound Transit experienced between 2019-2020.

This decrease includes:

  • The number of ST Express riders drops from 17.5 million to 6.2 million, the lowest since 2002
  • Stronger ridership down 4.6 million to 1.3 million, lowest since 2005
  • Tacoma Link ridership drops from 937,000 to 433,000, lowest since 2003
  • The number of Link users fell from 25.1 million to 9.7 million, the lowest since 2013

Sound Transit has already faced a decrease in ridership along an existing bus rapid transit route from Eastgate to Bellevue to Issaquah, a route where an ST3 light rail project is planned. The agency finally suspended the service on this road.

While some of the agency’s woes can be attributed to business closures and public health restrictions imposed by Governor Jay Inslee in response to COVID-19, Sound Transit has explored the issue. since early 2020. Agency officials attributed the increase in project costs to increased land values ​​and construction costs.

In a Note of January 5 To Peter Rogoff, CEO of Sound Transit, Kimberly Farley, Deputy CEO, wrote: “As we move forward in this next wave of projects towards basing their budgets and schedules in the years to come, it is clear from the latest estimates that the ultimate costs will be higher than those previously estimated. . These challenges are also present in other local projects and other parts of the country where rapid population growth, urban development and economic growth have driven up construction and real estate costs.

In 2016, a spokesperson for Sound Transit told Lens that ST3 had been “built to accommodate more standard ebb and flow of the economy”, with 22% of the project cost estimates for allocated / unplanned contingencies. allocated, as well as a reserve of 7%.

Meanwhile, the following tram projects are under construction:

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 multi-level system; this project now has an opening date of 2039, a four-year delay.

In addition to the new two-year deadline from 2030 to 2032, Tacoma Dome Link’s $ 3 billion expansion is already over budget by 10%, although it is still in the planning stages.

The delay is even longer for the Tram projects in Everett. Originally scheduled for 2036, the completion dates were later pushed back to 2037; under the new level system, one of the lines will not be completed until 2041 and the parking lot will not be completed until 2046.

For Everett residents still around to see the line open and old enough to remember, it will be a promise of 47 years since the then Sound Transit Board promised in 1994 that “light rail service towards Everett will be a priority “in the second phase of its regional plan.

Sound Transit has a long history of project cost overruns and schedule delays dating back to 2001, when the agency revealed that the first phase of its light rail line from University District to SeaTac was over budget by $ 1 billion. dollars, $ 1.5 billion in 2021 after adjustment. for inflation, and three years late.

The agency also faced financial difficulties similar to those it is currently experiencing during the Great Recession, which ultimately left it with a $ 4.5 billion shortfall in ST2’s 15-year financial forecast. . Forced loss of income the delay of ST2 projects or, in the case of the Federal Way tram extension, divide the segments into separate projects and integrate one of them into ST3. In 2018, the costs of the initial Federal Way project increased by $ 460 million, while the East Link section in 2017 accumulated 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 should now cost $ 5 billion more than the $ 7 billion initially estimated with ST3.

The next Sound Transit Board meeting is scheduled for September 23.


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