By Erica C. Barnett
The estimated cost of extending Seattle’s light rail system to Ballard and West Seattle, as well as several other components of the Sound Transit 3 plan adopted by voters in 2015, has risen dramatically since last year, Sound Transit staffers told the agency’s executive committee Wednesday. The main factors driving the increase, according to the agency, are higher than anticipated property acquisition costs, higher costs for labor and materials, and unanticipated “soft costs,” including additional funding for contingencies.
Overall, according to the staff presentation, the estimated cost to build the West Seattle-Ballard line and other aspects of the planned expansion, including a planned Tacoma Dome extension and a new operations and maintenance facility in South King County has increased by $7.9 billion, with the bulk of that—around $4.4 billion at the midrange of Sound Transit’s new estimates—coming from increased costs to build light rail between West Seattle and Ballard.
Sound Transit provided PubliCola a more detailed breakdown of the West Seattle-to-Ballard cost increases. The chart below represents the best-case (lowest-cost) scenario from the range Sound Transit released yesterday. The most dramatic percentage increase is in the elevated West Seattle to downtown segment, which Sound Transit attributed to the higher cost of property in quickly densifying West Seattle.
The main reason for the cost increases in general, Sound Transit deputy CEO Kimberly Farley said, was the cost of buying up property along the line. Property values have continued to skyrocket in Seattle and across the region despite the recession. Exacerbating that problem, Sound Transit will have to buy back an undisclosed number of buildings that are either currently under development or that have been developed since the ballot measure passed in 2015.
One of these is the Legacy at Fauntleroy mixed-use building, which will include more than 300 apartments and ground-floor commercial space. That building, and likely others, is on land that was upzoned in 2019 under Seattle’s Mandatory Housing Affordability program. The upzone, to 95 feet, went into effect in April 2019, making the seven-story project possible, and construction began three months later. The building is still under construction. PubliCola has a call out to the owner of the property./
During Wednesday’s meeting, board members and Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff hastened to emphasize that these huge unanticipated costs should be viewed as a challenge, not a disaster. “While these numbers are sobering, they’re not catastrophic,” Rogoff said. King County executive Dow Constantine added that the one certainty is that light rail will only get more, not less, expensive to build in the future. “This system would have been a lot easier to build 50 years ago,” he said—an allusion to the frequently referenced Forward Thrust plan that Puget Sound region voters rejected in 1968 and again in 1970.
Staffers noted Wednesday that it was possible to make some “protective acquisitions” of property to prevent huge spikes in property values along the line, but agency spokesman Geoff Patrick told PubliCola their power to do so is limited. “While public agencies can secure federal approval for protective acquisitions in some cases, most property acquisition must occur after environmental review processes are completed and the Board has adopted the final project to be built,” he said. “This occurs after completion of the draft and final environmental impact statements that are required for most major projects.”
The agency generally sets its “baseline” cost for projects once they reach the 60 percent design phase, which happens after an final alignment is chosen. Sound Transit has a preferred alternative, but is still considering other options during the environmental review process that’s currently underway. However, more expensive proposals—such as tunnels through West Seattle and under the Ship Canal to Ballard—are far less likely at this point. Farley said the board could reduce costs by decreasing the scope of the project. Or the new administration could come through with additional funding; Rogoff mentioned that he had already spoken with Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg. Any additional delay could add more costs in itself, assuming property values continue their upward trend.
An outside consultant will take a look at ST’s planning and cost estimating practices, Farley said, but Sound Transit staffers don’t expect that the estimates will change significantly. The board has already scheduled a “realignment” workshop on January 21 to discuss how to deal with lower-than-anticipated revenues, which are also impacting the agency’s ability to complete the projects it promised in the ST3 measure. “In combination with the significant revenue reductions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the upward cost pressures reviewed here increase the challenges the Sound Transit Board is required to address during its upcoming capital program realignment,” Farley told the board in a memo earlier this week.
Wednesday’s announcement did not include new estimates for light rail lines that are further down the road, including an extension of rail from Lynnwood to Everett, in Snohomish County. According to Patrick, “the design process for Everett has just now gotten underway, and our extensions serving South Kirkland/Issaquah and Tacoma Community College are still out there in the future.” In lieu of specific new estimates, the agency is assuming a 36 percent increase across the board. “This projection is subject to the independent review process we are commissioning, and will definitely change based on the design processes for these projects, but it is important for the realignment process to include an updated assumption.”
This is a developing story.