Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Citizen Panel: Sound Transit Needs To Tighten It Up

by Matt Rosenberg March 1st, 2013

In its year-end 2012 Performance Report, presented Thursday at the monthly Sound Transit board meeting in Seattle, ST’s Citizen Oversight Panel took the regional transit agency to task for poor operating cost controls and questionable resource allocation choices, while revenues are 30 percent lower than expected. The COP says in its report that with the Great Recession having smacked down projected ST 2 revenues by nearly a third, Sound Transit needs to clamp down on growth in day-to-day costs such as a planned 9 percent bump in transit operations spending in 2013, and what has been an ongoing five percent average growth rate for agency operating costs. That includes overhead and a particular sore point, security.

The panel also lamented that “years of delays” on completing the Mukilteo Station South Platform Project on the Sounder North commuter rail line drove related costs from an estimated $9.4 million in 2008 to the current estimate of $18.3 million. Completion is expected in 2015. “Schedule slippage” also drove projected costs from $19.3 million in 2005 to $35 million now for the planned Tukwila Station on ST’s Central Link light rail line, the COP report says.

COP also called out Sound Transit for resource misallocation. Reiterating a point from a critical special report it issued last fall, COP says that while passengers are being left behind or forced to stand on runs of overstuffed and too-infrequent express buses in the I-5 Everett-to-Seattle corridor, ST continues to sink too much money into the underperforming Sounder North commuter rail line serving the same general area. Sound Transit has said it is bound under the last ballot measure to maintain Sounder North service at current levels and that large sunken costs to get usage rights on the tracks also dictate maintaining the service. COP wants performance benchmarks set and a timeline for cutting at least one of the four weekday trains if those aren;t met. This, it says, would free up cash for 10 or more express bus trips daily up and back on I-5.

The express bus overcrowding between Everett and Seattle underscores broader concerns about Sound Transit system capacity, the COP says in its performance report. “…on the north and east corridors…light rail will not be able to add meaningful capacity until a decade from today. It is becoming apparent that the resources available may be insufficient to meet ridership demand on these and possibly other key corridors until the new Link (light rail) extensions come on line.”

The regional transit agency’s system covering King, Snohomish and Pierce counties includes a starter light rail line from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport, plus a slew of express buses, commuter rail between downtown and points north and south, and stand-alone local light rail in Tacoma. Voters created Sound Transit in 1996 with approval of the $3.9 billion “Sound Move” ballot proposition and stepped up again with approval of a $17.9 billion “Sound Transit 2″ funding package in 2008.

Other transit agencies are feeling the pain too, the COP report notes, including King County Metro, Snohomish County’s Community Transit and Pierce Transit. One near-term salve for ST could be to temporarily divert some capital project funds toward operations as Metro has, says COP, but ST won’t do that.

The oversight panel does parcel out some praise for Sound Transit in the report too, for keeping to current capital project schedules and budgets; for its array of internal and external oversight checks; and for keeping close track of revenue slippage.

At the meeting yesterday board members also discussed the nascent planning process for an “ST 3″ ballot measure to raise more money for the system. A staff memo says the vote could come as soon as 2016. Hinting at some of what might be in the ask, the memo says the agency plans to start or continue so-called “high capacity transit” studies for services to connect Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood with downtown; for Lynnwood to Everett; and ST’s south, central and east corridors.

In a recent e-mail interview ST spokesman Geoff Patrick explained, “…the national recession has dramatically affected Sound Transit, with a current forecast of 40 percent less revenues in our South King County subarea through 2023 that were assumed in the ballot measure. Across the region we have had to realign ST2 plans with current revenue forecasts. In South King County, which has been the hardest hit area, the result is that there is currently not capacity to construct light rail south of Kent/Des Moines.” To get to 320th Street in Federal Way ST “would need additional revenue sources (none are known so far) to build south of Kent/Des Moines, and voter approval to build south of South 272nd. Our target is to complete construction of the Kent-Des Moines extension by 2023.”

In an earlier interview last fall, Patrick said that 2023 target date for completion of light rail to Redmond, Lynnwood and Kent Des Moines may or may not be met due to sales tax shortfalls caused by the national economic slide and that if not, options include scaling down projects or pushing back timelines, borrowing, or getting voter approval of more taxes and fees.

The Puget Sound Regional Council reported in its 2010 report titled “Transportation 2040″ that the percent of all trips in the region utilizing transit will grow from 2.9 percent in 2006 to no more than 5.3 percent by 2040. That study is to be updated in coming months.


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