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Sound Transit budget hole demands a return to basics

Post by Kim Bradford on Aug. 8, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
August 8, 2010 6:38 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

The Great Recession could well prove the Great Out for Sound Transit as it struggles to reconcile the competing wish lists of communities in three counties.

The agency has known for some time that declining tax revenues had blown a hole in the $18 billion package of rail and bus service improvements approved by voters in 2008.

Earlier this year, that shortfall was thought to be around $3 billion. Now a Puget Sound-area economist is warning that the gap is still growing as the economy recovers slower than expected.

Economist Dick Conway’s calculations put the projected deficit at nearly $4 billion – or nearly one-fourth of Sound Transit’s total budget for the 2008 package.

The good news: The same economic woes that have sapped Sound Transit’s tax income have also made contractors hungry for work, allowing Sound Transit in some cases to build light and heavy rail projects for less than its engineers anticipated.

The bad: Sticking to the 2008 plan gets harder with every extension of the system’s light and commuter rail lines.

Sound Transit has had to fight its way through just about every community where it has laid tracks. Bellevue is proving no different. City leaders there want both a costlier light-rail route and a downtown tunnel. Sound Transit has the money for neither.

Then there are the tug-of-wars over “savings.” In Seattle, the city council is urging Sound Transit to spend some of what it could save on construction of the First Hill Streetcar to extend the line further north.

And in Tacoma last month, city council members cheered news that bids for work necessary to extend the Sounder train to Lakewood came in $26 million under budget by asking Sound Transit for add-ons. An agency official suggested that the $26 million might instead be a down payment on Pierce County’s portion of that $4 billion shortfall.

The tension here is between projects already underway and projects further out on Sound Transit’s 15-year timeline. Sound Transit endangers its ability to make good on its promises to the voters who approved the 2008 ballot measure by overcommitting now.

The agency also could end up undercutting its chances for a third public vote later this decade – a vote that could finally get light rail to Tacoma, provided it’s not bogged down politically and financially by shortages in the 2008 package.

Fortunately for Sound Transit leaders, the economy has given them the perfect excuse to say no.

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