The steep rise in real estate and construction costs in the region have driven up cost estimates for future transit expansion projects, contributing to a $6.5 billion affordability gap for delivering projects on earlier schedules.
In response, following 17 months of discussions and engagement with jurisdictions and stakeholders, the Sound Transit Board on Aug. 5, 2021, adopted a realignment plan that will serve as a framework for delivering agency system expansions as rapidly as possible. While projects already in construction are not affected, the plan will guide work to deliver later projects as soon as feasible, with timeline and potential scope adjustments as necessary to get them built affordably.
The plan reflects estimated affordable delivery dates for each project under current revenue and cost projections. However, for priority projects that face delays under current financial projections, the realignment plan also establishes more ambitious completion targets that are based on plans to intensively pursue additional financial capacity and to reduce costs.
The plan documents, including more detailed information, are linked on this page.
Sound Transit's future expansions are critical for our region’s mobility, economy and environment. Successfully expediting their completion will require close collaboration between Sound Transit and partners at the local, state and national levels.
The Sound Transit Board and staff on multiple levels will continue intensive work to improve project delivery timelines. These efforts include continuing environmental review processes for each project with participation and input of partners and the public. Added processes and check-ins will support the Board in closely reviewing and responding to continually updated financial projections. See information below and on project web pages for details on community engagement.
Realignment plan documents are linked on this page. Updates will be added to reflect future Board deliberations. Project pages in the System Expansion section of the Sound Transit website will be updated to reflect the adopted realignment plan. In the coming months and years these pages will be where you can continue to find updates on specific projects of interest to you.
Real estate and construction costs continue to surge
Light rail extension projects in early planning and design, including those to West Seattle, Ballard, the Tacoma Dome and a new Operations and Maintenance Facility South, are seeing significant cost estimate increases. Learn more in the Capital program cost estimate growth and response actions memo. These cost increases are expected to continue for later projects, such as light rail extensions to Everett, from South Kirkland to Issaquah and to Tacoma Community College.
In early 2021, Sound Transit commissioned independent experts to assess the agency's cost estimates. Their findings confirmed the appropriateness of the agency's updated cost estimates for current levels of project design. The ongoing independent review has yielded suggestions that will help guide project design work going forward. Findings and recommendations of the independent review are linked from this page.
Pursuing alternative revenue sources
Alongside identifying options to manage costs, we are aggressively pursuing federal grants and other alternative revenue sources to help close the affordability gap. We are joining with other agencies and allies in urging that federal pandemic recovery efforts and potential actions at the state level provide funding support for transit infrastructure so we can deliver our planned projects as close as possible to original schedules.
The plan prioritizes voter-approved projects by dividing them into four tiers. Projects in the top two tiers will be managed under the more ambitious completion targets unless or until it becomes necessary to fall back to affordable completion dates that allow more time to generate the required revenues. Tier 3 and 4 projects will be managed under their affordable schedules unless the program affordability gap is eliminated for Tier 1 and Tier 2 projects and then shrinks still further to allow Tier 3 and Tier 4 projects to be delivered more quickly. Expenditures on anyone individual project will be managed to protect the affordable schedule for all other projects.
Monitoring economic forecasts
The realignment process began early in the COVID-19 pandemic as governments around the country braced for significant impacts to their revenues from a national recession. The process continued in early 2021 as Sound Transit updated project cost estimates to reflect the market pressures and advancements of project designs. Fortunately, rebounded economic forecasts have restored long-range revenue projections though project cost estimates remain high. Sound Transit economists will continue to regularly update financial projections at the same time that environmental review and design work continue to update project cost estimates.
Some projects were temporarily put on hold during work on realignment. The Board's realignment plan will support upcoming Board consideration of actions to keep them moving forward on the updated schedules.
Planning process delays
In addition to current cost estimates and forecasts, non-financial impacts have created projected delays of one to three years for some projects.
The early months of the COVID-19 pandemic introduced delays in many projects' schedules. The pandemic affected not just Sound Transit, but also our government and community partners. Many were forced to shift resources to addressing the human impact of the pandemic and were justifiably unable to review planning and environmental documents for future transit projects during that time. When combined with our own delays, these delays in individual agencies and organizations had a compounding effect on some project schedules.
Current construction unaffected
Projects now under construction, including light rail extensions to Northgate, Lynnwood, Bellevue, Redmond, Federal Way and Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood, as well as the Puyallup Sounder garage, are not subject to realignment. We are poised to open all of these projects on schedule, almost tripling the light rail system in the next four years.
Realignment public engagement
In April 2021, we launched an online open house and survey to invite public input on the challenges ahead. More than 31,000 people visited the website, and we received nearly 10,000 survey responses. Thank you for sharing your priorities and helping to shape your transit future!
On May 27, we presented the survey results to the Sound Transit Board. In addition to the online survey, Sound Transit hosted more than 50 briefings for elected leaders and their staffs. We also conducted an additional 55 briefings to a broad range of stakeholder groups, including Sound Transit advisory boards, healthcare industry leaders, Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce and disability advocates. Over the course of a year, these meetings helped keep our jurisdictional and community partners apprised of changes to Sound Transit's financial situation while soliciting input on how the agency might respond to lower tax revenues and higher estimated costs.
Sound Transit staff also completed a round of listening sessions with organizations that work with communities most affected by institutional and systemic racism and other forms of oppression and who are potentially impacted by program realignment decisions. This effort included organizations that serve or represent Black communities, other people of color, people experiencing economic hardship, limited- or non-English speaking communities, immigrants and refugees.
Results from this jurisdictional and community engagement are included in the report to the Board along with results of the online survey.
Public engagement will continue. Intensive stakeholder and public input during our environmental review and final design processes will remain a key part of shaping the scopes, schedules and budgets of every single project we design and build. Engagement going forward will include informing and involving the public in work to improve the agency's project delivery by securing more funding and working to control costs without sacrificing projects' public benefits.