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Sound Transit derails light rail to Federal Way area amid huge revenue loss

Sound Transit announced Thursday that dipping revenues will impact 2008
Sound Transit announced Thursday that dipping revenues will impact 2008's Sound Transit 2 transportation package, likely preventing light rail from reaching Federal Way by 2023.
— image credit: File photo

Sound Transit announced Thursday that dipping revenues will impact 2008's Sound Transit 2 transportation package, likely preventing light rail from reaching Federal Way by 2023.

The announcement was part of a budget overview given by CEO Joni Earl to Sound Transit's board of directors. According to the latest projections, Sound Transit is experiencing a $3.9 billion long range (through 2023) revenue loss. This is $800 million more than it had previously projected. The loss reduces the company's overall revenues by 25 percent and poses problems for Sound Transit's voter-approved ST2 package, which will bring bus, sounder and light rail improvements and expansions to subareas served by Sound Transit — Snohomish County; North, East and South King County; and Pierce County — by 2023.

"The reality means we can't afford the whole program," Earl said.

The $17.9 billion (in 2008 dollars) ST2 package was approved by voters in 2008, when Sound Transit requested a .05 percent (5 cents on a $10 retail purchase) sales tax increase within the subareas to help help pay for the breadth of projects included in the package. The tax will be collected through 2023.

Now, a re-evaluation of all of ST2's projects has been triggered. Earl has recommended that each project either be:

• Designed and constructed as previously planned,

• Moved forward as planned with the knowledge that the project's completion schedule could be altered,

• Move ahead with no funding for the project, but limited funding to go toward a $2.5 million analysis to identify alternatives or alterations that could be implemented if revenues improve or in the future,

• Suspended from the plan, or

• Deleted regardless of future revenues.

All jurisdictions served by Sound Transit will be affected by Earl's recommendations if the board approves them.

Sound Transit's south corridor, consisting of South King County and Pierce County, will feel the biggest impacts. Many of the corridor's ST2 projects will now either move forward with an uncertain completion date, or will only be funded enough to provide alternatives to the original project. Light rail from the Sea-Tac airport to South 200th Street in the Kent/Des Moines area is fully funded and will proceed with a yet undetermined completion date. Earl is proposing the board accept her recommendation to bring light rail to South 200th Street by 2016 instead of 2020. However, she is also proposing holding back from delivering light rail further south into Federal Way by 2023, and preparing for a future extension into Tacoma.

As originally proposed, the $809 million to $952 million (in 2007 figures) portion from South 200th Street to South 272nd Street would have connected Federal Way directly to the Sea-Tac airport, and would have added two new light rail stations near Highline Community College and the Redondo Heights park-and-ride lot. Five hundred parking spaces would have been added in the areas. Future right-of-way acquisition for a light rail connection to the Tacoma Dome were planned.

The Federal Way City Council fought hard in 2008 to convince Sound Transit that light rail service to Federal Way and farther south was essential. Building the light rail before 2023 guarantees it will reach far and wide, city council member Jim Ferrell said at that time. If Sound Transit proposes a partial rail line, the remainder may never be built due to inflation and voters' potential hesitation to approve another transit measure at a later date, he said.

Now, it's hard to say if, and when, light rail will reach Federal Way and beyond. Ferrell is let down, but understands Sound Transit's situation.

"It's a real reflection of the current economic climate, and tough decisions do need to be made," Ferrell said Thursday. "But I am disappointed."

Ferrell hopes Sound Transit will continue to consider extending light rail to Federal Way.

The south corridor will be hit hardest by the reworked ST2 package due to steeply decreasing revenue in South King County. Revenues are down 31 percent from 2008 projections. The area has a lower tax base and a lower overall income level compared to some of the other ST2 subareas, Sound Transit staff said.

"There's some serious financial constrictions in that subarea, more than others," Earl said.

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