Face reality; pull plug on light rail
Now is the time for Sound Transit's directors to face the reality of their light-rail project. Without federal money, it is dead.
As part of the geyser of promises and pardons on the Clinton administration's last full day in office, Sound Transit was promised $500 million. The first two payments on that, totaling $125 million, have been blocked by a more-sober administration, and the whole $500 million is now in question.
Kenneth Mead, the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general, says in his report that Sound Transit misrepresented its costs when it asked for the $500 million. In September, Sound Transit projected the whole light-rail line to cost $2.5 billion. Now, it estimates $4.164 billion. Some of that is new information, but some is what managers knew before September.
Light-rail opponent Emory Bundy was saying last summer that the official numbers were way off and that by his calculation, the costs were hundreds of millions higher. He was right.
In January, Bundy predicted a "Nightmare Scenario" - that Sound Transit would build the first and most-expensive segment of the line, from the University District to South Lander Street, and run out of money. Taxpayers from Everett to Tacoma would have spent $2.6 billion on a 7-mile line "conveying people short hops between Capitol Hill, downtown and the U District."
Look in the inspector general's report, and there is Bundy's bad dream. The $500 million promised by the Clinton administration would pay for 19 percent of the first segment. But building the first segment would leave Sound Transit so strapped it would have to ask for $931 million of the second segment - about 60 percent of that segment. Would the federal government pay that? Mead suggests not. His report says, in italic print, "the reality is Sound Transit may only be able to fund one segment."
When big projects fail, this is how they die. They develop wobbles and leaks. They are delayed. Plans are changed. Costs go up. Employees begin to bail out. Finally, long after everyone else knew it was over, some committee braves the embarrassment and pulls the plug.
The report of Inspector General Mead, and the comments by the House Appropriations subcommittee chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers, suggest the endgame of light rail has now begun. The plug is being pulled. The decision is not final; it could be reversed. It could be - but reality suggests it will not be.
It all begins to look like the slow-motion death of the Washington Public Power Supply System's plan 25 years ago to build five nuclear power plants at once. There is one difference: WPPSS got into big money, and we are still paying for it. Sound Transit has not spent big money for Link Light Rail.
It is time for Sound Transit's directors to cut losses - the system's and their own. Light rail is shrinking before their eyes to something as irrelevant to regional transportation as the waterfront trolley. Better to kill it now. The cost will never be less.
INFORMATION Sound Transit Directors
Chairman: Dave Earling, Edmonds City Council
Vice chairman: Greg Nickels, King County Council
Vice chairman: David Enslow, Sumner City Council
Jack Crawford, Kenmore deputy mayor
Ann Kirk Davis, Lakewood City Council
Bob Drewel, Snohomish County executive
Mary Gates, Federal Way City Council
Jane Hague, King County Council
Ed Hansen, Everett mayor
Richard McIver, Seattle City Council
Rob McKenna, King County Council
Sid Morrison, former secretary of Transportation
Kevin Phelps, Tacoma deputy mayor
Paul Schell, Seattle mayor
Ron Sims, King County executive
Cynthia Sullivan, King County Council
Jim White, Kent mayor