Land costs pushing light-rail expansion over budget, Sound Transit says

Expansion plans for Tacoma Link are uncertain as Sound Transit deals with cost overruns on light-rail expansion from Seattle to Lynnwood.
Expansion plans for Tacoma Link are uncertain as Sound Transit deals with cost overruns on light-rail expansion from Seattle to Lynnwood. Staff file, 2016

Sound Transit’s long-awaited Lynnwood light-rail line is running $500 million over budget and is expected to be finished six months late in mid-2024, transit CEO Peter Rogoff said.

The agency blames soaring labor, materials and land costs in the overheated Seattle-area market, along with added features being requested by communities.

The previous $2.4 billion estimate is now $2.9 billion, according to papers released at Thursday’s board meeting.

Cost increases there portend possible increases for future extensions from Overlake to Redmond and Angle Lake to Federal Way, currently aimed at 2024. A plan to expand Tacoma Link through the Stadium District and onto the Hilltop by 2022 also might be in jeopardy, according to Sound Transit records.

“It’s certainly a disappointment to everyone,” Rogoff said before a Sound Transit board meeting Thursday. “What is not in question is whether we will get to Everett, get to Redmond and to Federal Way, or Tacoma, to Ballard and West Seattle.”

The half-billion increase comes as a surprise for taxpayers.

The rising costs either weren’t known or weren’t disclosed a year ago as voters weighed the Sound Transit 3 plan to reach Everett and build seven other extensions around the region, including to Tacoma by 2030. Voters said yes in November.

Voters in 2008 approved Sound Transit 2, to push the line from Northgate to Lynnwood. Since then, commuters in the north corridor have suffered what may be the region’s worst increase in highway congestion.

Among the factors in the rising costs, according to the agency: Sound Transit predicted a 25-percent hike in land costs that turned out to be 44 percent, from 2014-17.

Construction prices are soaring, too. In a cost-estimating exercise, Hoffman Construction, which finished the popular UW Station for $141 million in 2016, told Sound Transit the same project would require $248 million now.

The time delay, from December 2023 until mid-2024, is driven partly by instability in the federal government. During the Obama administration, it was expected the feds would deliver $1.2 billion, or half the estimated cost of the Lynnwood project.

Congress did appropriate the first $100 million, but Rogoff says he can’t sign construction contracts until the entire “full funding grant agreement” is signed by the federal government, hopefully in July 2018.

President Donald Trump has proposed halting the big transit grants, but key senators, including Washington state Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, have been working with colleagues to keep them.

Regardless, Sound Transit needs to revise the budget and design early next year, so it doesn’t create additional delay.

Some of that could be reduced by trimming back on certain features, Rogoff said. Possibilities include buying less land around stations, or coming up with simpler designs for park-and-ride garages, Rogoff said.

Cost trimming has been done before —- in the early 2000s, the agency changed to a simpler roof design at SeaTac/Airport Station to save millions, instead of replicating the grand wing-shaped roof at Tukwila International Boulevard Station.

Sound Transit’s enormous stream of tax revenue can absorb cost increases, but every dollar spent now leaves less money to develop future rail service into Everett, under agency principles where Snohomish County projects are funded using limited Snohomish County money.

The fine print in voter-approved ballot measures does give politicians on the transit board full authority to spend new ST3 money on the Northgate-Lynnwood line, which is an ST2 project.

After riding the tail winds of the recession and low construction bids, Sound Transit is now facing the headwinds of high prices, Rogoff said. This is to be expected over the next 25 years of expansions, in ST2-3, he said.