by Lizz Giordano
While other Sound Transit projects face delays, all three future light rail infill stations — stations to be inserted along existing rail lines — including one planned for South Graham Street, remain on time or early, the agency decided Thursday, Aug. 6, as it confronts a $6.5 billion budget deficit.
At the beginning of 2021, Sound Transit declared much of Sound Transit 3 (ST3) “unaffordable” as the agency faced a shortfall. The agency blames rising land costs, declining sales tax revenue due to COVID-19 shutdowns, and pricey project add-ons for the budget gap, which has since narrowed in part due to increased tax revenue projections.
The board approved a plan Thursday that placed projects into four tiers, prioritizing those in the top two tiers, which are mainly light rail and bus rapid transit extensions. Most of these are facing a two- to five-year postponement. Sound Transit estimates items in tiers three and four, mostly parking and Sounder train projects, could be delayed up to 10 years. On top of a financial setback, some ST3 projects face a one- to two-year planning lag which the agency attributes mostly to the pandemic.
According to the revised plan, the South Graham Street and South Boeing Access Road light rail stations will open in 2031 as set out in the original ST3 plan, minus any planning delay. The new plan moves up the Northeast 130th Street infill station from 2031 to 2025.
The new schedule phases in, and delays slightly, the West Seattle to Ballard and Lynnwood to Everett extensions. The new plan extends light rail tracks to Alaska Junction from SODO by 2032 and gets to Smith Cove by 2037 and to Ballard two years later. The Snohomish County line that will eventually connect Everett with Seattle truncates in Southwest Everett in 2037 and completes its northern spine by 2041.
The meeting Thursday capped hours of discussion that took place over a year and a half as board members debated how to complete all the scheduled projects that are part of the massive expansion, expected to last decades.
Some board members wanted to rework ST3’s project timeline based on the current funding estimates. Others worried that projects set for later in the build-out could be delayed even longer or canceled altogether if earlier projects eat up funding.
Many of the public comments submitted for the proposed realignment urged Sound Transit not to delay but rather speed up light rail project timelines.
Speaking during public comment, Velma R. Veloria, a former state representative, urged the board “to affirm its commitment to equity and justice” by not delaying the South Graham Street Station.
“The Graham Street neighborhood is a community that has been historically ignored by Sound Transit,” Veloria said. “There are many community anchors that are waiting for the opportunities that come with the light rail.”
Board members still have tough decisions ahead as they try to shrink the $6.5 billion budget deficit.
The West Seattle to Ballard extension faces a $1.8 billion budget gap at this time as the agency works with the neighborhood to plan the route. For the Lynnwood to Everett extension, which is three times longer, the funding gap is $600 million.
A $98 million funding gap, according to Sound Transit, remains for the infill stations in ST3. In the South End, the Graham Street and Boeing Access stations are facing a gap of $8 million and $25 million respectively. The third infill station, set for Northeast 130th Street, needs $65 million to bridge its budget gap.
For years, Sound Transit has proposed building a station at South Graham Street, breaking up one of the longest gaps in Seattle — a 1.7-mile hole between the Columbia City and Othello Street stations. The station was officially placed on the map when ST3 passed in 2016. The area endured the extremely disruptive build-out, gentrification in the Rainier Valley, and encumbered access to local businesses by the rail line running at street level. Despite these hardships, the neighborhood has been unable to reap the benefits of fast, reliable transit.
The potential delays for the South Graham Street station, announced earlier this year, placed the Graham Street neighborhood vision, meant to guide development and prevent displacement as light rail came to the area, in flux.
“My goal is to deliver as much of the system — as many of the services that we can, as fast as we can,” said Kent Keel, Sound Transit board chair and University Place city councilmember. “These are hundred-year investments, they take time and resources, but — the benefits as we’ve all been saying and heard from the public — the benefits are tremendous.”
Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.
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