In Five Years, Sound Transit Has Racked Up An Additional $50B for Rail Plan


Since 2017, Sound Transit’s full system expansion went from costing taxpayers $92 billion to an incredible $142 billion, and project completion was stretched from 2041 to 2046. That’s $50 billion in unanticipated expenses to deliver a project later than expected.

For perspective, that’s like adding a second Sound Transit 3 (ST3) tax to the plan. In 2016, voters were told ST3 would cost $54 billion but now it has become clear that the actual costs are far greater. Anticipated tax revenue (which includes sales and use tax, motor vehicle excise tax, property tax and rental car tax) increased from $60.6 billion to $88.9 billion. This huge increase will not add more elements to the plan, nor will it increase projected ridership. It only reflects the program's massive cost overruns.

After all these dollars – and probably billions more – are spent, Sound Transit will have built a rail system that will likely carry fewer than 5% of regional trips, according to Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) data. Meanwhile, billions of dollars in desperately needed highway and road projects, including bridge repair and basic maintenance, remain unfunded.

Locally, Bellevue is experiencing unprecedented residential and employment growth due, in part, to tech companies like Amazon which plans to welcome 25,000 employees in Bellevue by 2025. Light rail plus Sound Transit’s overbuilt version of bus rapid transit called Stride is projected to carry only about 1.7% of daily trips in Bellevue by 2030. That was the assumption before COVID decimated ridership and fundamentally changed the commuting landscape.

Planners at the PSRC say that light rail ridership will “increase by more than tenfold over 2018 levels” regionally, but that forecast uses pre-COVID 2018 as a baseline and assumes a much higher percentage of households will live near transit systems (and thus will use them). Even Sound Transit’s friends at the Transportation Choices Coalition and Puget Sound Sage admitted in 2020 that “proximity to transit does not necessarily mean people will take it or that it provides a good transportation option.”

We should also keep in mind that the increase in light rail ridership sounds impressive, but a large share of that is expected to come from existing bus riders. In other words, these aren’t commuters who have been coaxed out of their cars but rather existing transit riders who, at great cost to taxpayers, merely switch from bus to light rail.  Even under the PSRC’s optimistic forecast, transit’s share of total trips in the region increases only slightly and trends suggest the reality is likely to fall short of the forecast. This is a very poor return on a very large investment.  

Sound Transit officials admit they assume COVID impacts will continue beyond 2021 but are uncertain for how long. At the same time, they remain very certain that ridership, with the delivery of Sound Transit 3 (ST3) projects, will increase substantially.

Read the rest of this piece at Washington Policy Center.

Mariya Frost is the Director of the Coles Center for Transportation at Washington Policy Center. Mariya has lived in both Eastern and Western Washington, and believes strongly in the freedom of mobility for all Washingtonians. She is on the Board of Directors for the Eastside Transportation Association, a member of the Jim MacIsaac Research Committee, and a member of the Women of Washington civic group. She and her husband live in Tacoma.

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Rinse and repeat

This replays the outcome in so many other places. Is there any substantial political opposition in Puget Sound?