Sound Transit must keep 2030 deadline

From the Editorial Board

Sound Transit promised to expand light rail from Federal Way to the Tacoma Dome station by 2030: We’re holding them to it.
Sound Transit promised to expand light rail from Federal Way to the Tacoma Dome station by 2030: We’re holding them to it.

Among Pierce County’s sins, demand for instant gratification isn’t one of them. From behavioral health care facilities to Sound Transit light-rail projects, we’ve done our share of waiting. Like the youngest stepchild in a large, boisterous family, we’ve accepted our end-of-the line status dutifully.

But alarm bells ring over news that an important Sound Transit project up north, the Lynnwood light-rail extension link, is coming in a staggering $500 million over budget. Its opening has been delayed six months; it is now expected to be completed in mid-2024.

Positioned last in a three-county light-rail network, Pierce County should be concerned what this portends for a promised 2030 timeline for light rail’s arrival at Tacoma Dome station. Local taxpayers are already paying for it under last fall’s Sound Transit 3 package of license tab fee, sales and property tax increases.

Did the half-billion dollar shortfall on the Lynnwood project, which is part of the previous Sound Transit 2 package, just sneak up on them?

Well, sort of, according to Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason. She said the design for the Lynnwood extension was only 30 percent complete at the time of the ST3 campaign a year ago. Sound Transit has since explained the shortfall by citing soaring costs of labor, material and real estate.

In this market, however, those should not have been startling revelations.

Only one of two conclusions can be drawn from Sound Transit’s “rising costs” response, and neither reflects favorably on the agency’s stewardship: Either it was incompetent, or it didn’t disclose the full picture when asking voters to approve ST3.

Pierce voters were already dubious; they’ve never met a Sound Transit package they love. The series of funding measures — starting with Sound Move in 1996, to ST2 in 2008, and finally the $54 billion ST3 in 2016 — saw declining support from South Sound voters. The latter two packages didn’t win majorities in Pierce County, but because King and Snohomish comprise the bulk of the taxing district, what they say goes.

It should be noted that Sound Transit’s problems aren’t restricted to the Lynnwood extension. The agency is currently seeking $500 million in federal transit grants. A recent deal brokered by Sen. Patty Murray secured funds for transit projects for 2017, but President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal says, “future investments… would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from them.”

We hope that 25 years from now Pierce County residents will enjoy the benefits of hindsight and see that ST3 was worth the increases in fees, taxes and anxiety.

As we’ve said before, a robust mass-transit system, anchored by a light-rail spine that moves people from Everett to Tacoma and commuter trains running all the way to DuPont, can be a game changer. The traffic-snarled South Sound will reap big benefits in economic development and lifestyle improvements.

But we haven’t forgotten the promise Sound Transit made when pushing ST3 a year ago. Any serious hope for Tacoma to land a big fish, like an Amazon headquarters, or a number of smaller catches may depend on it.

Pierce County is patient, but we’re holding fast to the 2030 light-rail deadline — and we need to know Sound Transit is, too.