Sound Transit's overruns overshadow what's running
Seattle Times staff reporter
Scott Conrad sprinted to catch the 5:35 p.m. train to Puyallup several weeks ago and ran into the latest attempt by Sound Transit to buff its image.
He happened to be the 500,000th rider of the agency's commuter-rail service and was stopped at Seattle's King Street Station by agency employees carrying balloons.
"They said, 'You win,' " snapped his picture and handed him a plaque, Conrad recalled.
Conrad's a big fan of commuter rail, which began its Tacoma-Seattle run last year. But he asks this question as Sound Transit marks the midpoint of its 10-year development plan: "Why hasn't more been accomplished, given the time and the money that has been spent?"
Five years after Sound Transit promised voters that it would deliver buses, commuter rail and light rail on time and on budget, estimates indicate that all three lines of business could cost over a billion dollars more than projected.
Tally it up, and the construction and financing costs are expected to top $7.3 billion if the agency moves ahead with all its plans — roughly $1.2 billion more than first estimated in 1996. And it's still not clear if Sound Transit will be able to complete its commuter-rail and light-rail projects as promised.
Sound Transit officials say the agency has had successes and that the service provided will be better than originally envisioned.
There's a lot to be proud of, said Joni Earl, the agency's executive director. Sound Transit should be given credit for getting buses and commuter rail running in just a few years, she said. "We're taking 22,000 people out of their cars per day — that's big. To be where we are today is pretty remarkable."
Sound Transit's cost increases are not unusual, she said. "You look at any other capital project, the third runway (at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport), sewer-treatment plants, you name them, and these kinds of problems happen."
Plus, many of the increases resulted from board decisions to make the projects better by adding features such as more station parking and pedestrian bridges, she said.
But Steven Polzin, with the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida, said Sound Transit sticks out even among transit agencies with cost overruns.
"I don't think your (light-rail project) is just like every place else in the country. It's been a source of national attention and industry concern, frankly. Some of the staunchest advocates of rail have vehemently objected to the situation in Seattle" because it gives light rail a bad image, he said.
The fact that all of the agency's transit projects have exceeded cost projections "suggests a concern collectively," said Polzin, a senior researcher at the center, which Congress created to do independent national research on transportation
Sound Transit was launched in November 1996 when voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties agreed to pay for a regional transportation system to include buses, commuter rail and light rail. It was given a steady flow of cash from sales and motor-vehicle excise taxes — about $270 million last year — and the ability to borrow money by issuing bonds.
Bond-interest payments, as is typical for large projects, will stretch out over 30 years. Britney Spears, now 19, will be a member of AARP by the time the debt is paid off.
Sound Transit has used only part of the taxing authority it received from the state; however, any future tax increases must be approved by voters.
Initiative 695, passed two years ago by voters who wanted to slash car-license tabs, did not affect Sound Transit's ability to collect taxes.
The transportation plan, Sound Move, promised voters that cost estimates were "consciously conservative. The assumptions have been carefully analyzed to provide a cushion in case there are adverse changes."
In 1996, Sound Transit budgeted about $4.4 billion, adjusted for inflation, for construction. Today, total construction costs are expected to exceed $5.4 billion if the original 21-mile light-rail line is completed.
Financing costs have jumped at least $213 million to $1.87 billion because the agency plans to issue more bonds to pay for the projects. Borrowing more money means paying more interest.
Here's what Sound Transit pledged in 1996:
• Express buses: A system of 174 buses in the three-county area, with 15.8 million passenger boardings by 2010. Sound Transit also laid out plans for on-and-off ramps that would allow traffic using car-pool lanes to enter and exit highways without having to weave through traffic. Cost: $1.28 billion.
Today, the agency expects the bus system and car-pool ramps to cost $1.38 billion. The $100 million difference is enough money to pave Seattle streets for the next 28 years at current levels of spending.
One of the biggest factors behind the increase is delays. Inflation adds to the cost of a project.
About one-third of the projects are behind schedule. For example, a car-pool ramp in Bellevue due to open last year won't open until summer.
Earl said the delays largely result from consulting with different agencies to improve the projects; although costs are going up, taxpayers in the end get better service, she said.
Sound Transit has 194 buses with 6 million boardings annually. It now projects fewer riders — 11.5 million boardings by 2010 — than estimated in 1996.
• Commuter rail: An 82-mile rail system between Everett and Lakewood, just south of Tacoma, using existing rail owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. The system would provide 30 trips a day, carrying 3.2 million passengers annually by 2010. Cost: $775.4 million.
Today, the system is expected to cost $926 million, roughly $150 million more than projected in 1996. Much of the increase is due to building more expensive stations than planned. So far, Sound Transit has four daily trips between Tacoma and Seattle.
Sound Transit now says it doesn't have enough money to extend commuter rail to Everett. It's about $76 million short. It had expected to get the money from the state and Amtrak, but those plans fell through. The agency isn't sure where it can get the funds.
• Light rail: A 21-mile light-rail system from the city of SeaTac to Seattle's University District that would start service by 2006, and eventually have 120,000 daily boardings. The agency also said it would build a 1.6-mile light-rail line in downtown Tacoma. Total cost: $2.41 billion
Sound Transit announced earlier this year it doesn't have enough money to do what it said. It is considering a 14-mile light-rail system from downtown Seattle to South 154th Street in Tukwila, one mile short of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Seattle Mayor-elect Greg Nickels wants to break ground by July.
It is still building the segment in downtown Tacoma. Total cost: $2.28 billion.
Sound Transit hopes to continue south to Sea-Tac and north to the U District later. It isn't sure yet what it would take to complete the route. Preliminary estimates indicate total costs for light rail would exceed $3.16 billion, a difference of at least $750 million from 1996.
Sound Transit officials say the agency underestimated the amount of engineering work needed, how much staff it needed to hire, and how much time it takes to get transit systems running. That's part of what drove up costs.
But they steadfastly claim ignorance of why they were wrong, saying most of the original planners are long gone.
"I can tell you what they missed, but I can't tell you the why," said Earl, who became executive director after Bob White resigned in January.
Earl said she's frustrated by the constant comparison of what Sound Transit is doing now to what voters approved in 1996.
"It's as if there is no public recognition or media recognition that this is very complex. Do you throw everything out in terms of the value of it, just because the reality is more complex than the crafters viewed it?" she said.
She noted tax revenues have been higher than expected in recent years, which help offset the cost increases. Also, the agency isn't tied to the 1996 budget, she said. The legislation approved by voters "allows (Sound Transit) to amend budgets based on the circumstances."
Earl said Sound Transit should be judged on the services it has delivered.
"The proof is in the people who use our service," she said. "We are changing people's lives, and I think that's a great positive."
Sound Transit gets rave reviews from passengers. The agency's rider surveys show at least two-thirds of passengers questioned give the services high marks.
Paul Gayeski, a Web-page developer from Kirkland, rides an Express bus from Bellevue to his job in downtown Seattle. "I think it's great," he said. "The buses are nice. There are more options for me."
Scott Conrad, the guy given the Sound Transit plaque, said the agency should be commended for a well-run train service.
Conrad used to spend up to two hours driving from Puyallup to Seattle and paid $6 to $12 a day for parking. Now he rides the train every day. His commute is an hour and 15 minutes, and he doesn't have to pay for parking. Better still, his employer, Immunex, pays for the train pass.
"It's clean, it's convenient, it's fast. Even using a bus, if there's rush-hour traffic, you are stuck on a bus. With a train, you are bypassing that," he said.
Though Conrad doesn't care for Sound Transit's spiraling budget, he sees no alternative.
"Traffic is just getting worse and worse. Trains and light rail are going to have to be an option," he said. "We have to go forward."
Kevin Phelps, Tacoma's deputy mayor and a Sound Transit board member, said that though he is uneasy about self-congratulation, the agency deserves credit for not giving up. "We recognize we haven't done things as well as we could have done them, but we're trying to make changes, and we're still committed," he said.
Polzin, with the National Transit Research Center, was less charitable.
"There are several cities where you could build an entire (transit) system for the cost of your overrun," he said.
Andrew Garber can be reached at 206-464-2595 or firstname.lastname@example.org.