Getting Light Rail Done Faster

Sound Transit can build light rail faster than the current schedule if Seattle commits to finding innovative solutions in partnership with the regional transit agency to expedite permitting and financing of planned projects.

Passing Sound Transit 3 was exciting for Seattle because it promised light rail to Ballard and West Seattle, as well as an infill station at Graham Street. The excitement was tempered however, because ST won’t build the West Seattle line until 2031, the Graham infill station until 2032, or the Ballard line until 2036.  

Light rail lines take a long time under the best of circumstances - planning, permitting and construction generally takes at least ten years, and frequently  longer.

There is potential for delay at every step. With its expansive work plan, ST could prioritize its planning resources for other projects.  Lengthy fights over alignment or permits could also extend planning or permitting well past ST’s goal of 4.3 years.  

But even when permitting is complete, Sound Transit has another issue - it must stage its projects to reflect its cash flow.  ST construction is paid for with borrowing, and ST can only borrow so much at a time. That is how it has paid for past and ongoing construction. As revenues come in to pay down those bonds, ST borrows more to advance the later projects. That sequencing is understandable, but it means that light rail to West Seattle and Ballard will take longer than required by the technical logistics of building a light rail line.

Seattle can potentially help shave years off the timeline if it works to accelerate planning and permitting, and partners with Sound Transit to ease the cash flow crunch.  That means coming to the table with resources that are meaningful enough to make a difference.  

So here is my commitment if elected:

1.  Work with Sound Transit to front load planning for Seattle projects as much as possible. To prevent delaying other regional projects, that probably means Seattle needs to come forward with monetary contributions or other resources. In 2011 we did that to advance joint planning to Ballard, which actually led to Sound Transit advancing its planning regionwide.

2.  Work with Sound Transit to identify how to shorten the permitting process consistent with sound analysis and public input. We need to ensure we don’t end up the way Bellevue did, locked in a long dispute over alignment.  If we do step 1 and 2 right, we can move more quickly with construction if moneys become available from any source.  Recall, this is a multiyear process, and we should not yet give up hope that we might get a transit-friendly President and Congress in the years to come.

3. Work with Sound Transit to understand how much money they would need, and when, in order to significantly advance the timelines to complete Seattle projects. We could then assess Seattle’s ability to either use its borrowing ability to to make bridge loans to Sound Transit, or our ability to help finance some parts of the project.

Let’s be clear, this would be complex and potentially expensive. But given Seattle’s extraordinary transportation issues, we need to examine all possibilities to get light rail to more neighborhoods faster.

For example, could Seattle (and perhaps King County) partner with ST to ease the cash flow issues? Specifically, could Seattle and King County use their borrowing capacity to advance money to Sound Transit. Then, as Sound Transit followed its existing financial plan and borrowed against revenues, it could pay back the advances made by Seattle and King County. To hold Sound Transit harmless and not damage ST’s budget, Seattle would likely have to pay the carrying costs - the interest on the bridge loans.

On a $100 million bridge loan, at a municipal bond rate of 4%, that would be $4 million a year. For $500 million, that would be $20 million a year, a billlion dollars of lending would mean $40 million a year. That is real money, but this bonding is within the scale of city budgeting, to be paid off either within existing revenues or from a new tax source. (By the way, this increases the urgency to be careful with our spending now, so that we have money for our real priorities.)

How much would Seattle have to borrow to really make a difference? That depends on taking a close look at when ST really needs the additional dollars, how much they need, and how soon it could repay it. Since the bulk of the costs are in construction, one would expect the bigger costs to come later in the timeline. But finding the answers would require close cooperation with Sound Transit to understand the sequencing of their needs, and to fully examine the legality and feasibility of this approach.

This discussion could also spur a serious effort to unlock dollars from other sources as well.  Perhaps instead of lending, Seattle will need to make direct dollar contributions. As the discussions progress Sound Transit might identify efficiencies, or the ability to speed up its borrowing without endangering its overall financial position.  Perhaps Sound Transit could agree to finance later Seattle transit projects in exchange for Seattle helping finance the current light rail projects. The urgency expressed by Seattle accompanied with by its willingness to come to the table with dollars might also help unlock additional dollars from the state and federal governments.

The effort starts by making faster timelines a priority for Seattle. Then completing the permitting and alignment quickly enough so that Sound Transit can build earlier. Then having a real conversation about Sound Transit’s financial needs, with a serious effort by Seattle to help address them.

We don’t know how that will work out, but we know what will happen if Seattle sits quietly. It will take a long time to get these projects done. Instead we should push for creative solutions that protects the timeline of regional priorities while advancing Seattle’s projects.

Yes, this is ambitious. But we know from experience that ambitious plans can make a difference. In 2011, after updating our own Transit Master Plan and looking at a more modest rail line to Ballard, we asked Sound Transit begin joint planning to Ballard. We put in our own money and Sound Transit agreed to spend its Ballard line planning money years earlier than intended. The Sound Transit Board could have blocked Seattle pushing ahead. Instead, it decided to advance planning all across the region, a decision that was essential to getting Sound Transit to the ballot in 2016.

We can do the same thing again. By putting Seattle’s shoulder to the wheel, let’s see how much faster we can complete the Seattle projects. That’s my commitment if elected.