Urban Politics #105: Council Votes On Sound Transit Resolutions


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Assistant Newell Aldrich on this issue.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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CONTENTS:

  • Council Votes On Sound Transit Resolutions
  • Inspector General’s Report
  • Background On Tunnel Transfer Agreement
  • Resolution 30301: Downtown Tunnel Transfer Agreement
  • Resolution 30300: Light Rail Review Panel
  • Votes
  • Sound Transit’s Other Problems

Council Votes On Sound Transit Resolutions

On Tuesday, April 3 the Transportation Committee of the City Council voted on the two resolutions I introduced and co-sponsored (described in UP #103). The Tunnel Transfer Agreement passed 9-0; the Light Rail Review Committee resolution was replaced by another version, as explained below.

All 9 City Councilmembers attended the committee meeting. In my three-plus years on the Council, there has been less than 3 times when all 9 Councilmembers have attended a committee meeting. Clearly, this was an issue important to the Council as a whole.

Inspector General’s Report

The very next day, April 4, the U.S. Inspector General’s Office released a report on the Link Light Rail Project.

In the report, Inspector General Kenneth Mead criticized the Federal Transit Administration, which provides money and technical help to local transit projects, for not properly reviewing Sound Transit’s grant request. He said changes in the project’s cost and scope have led to opposition from the community.

As a result of this report, the U.S. government will not provide $125 million in funding for light rail this year; the money has been placed on hold until Sound Transit “identifies and discloses all issues that could materially impact the Project’s costs, schedule and scope, including alignments, design refinements, contracting methods, and local agreements.” Further, the Federal Transit Administration and Congress will review the estimated costs to complete the project.

Background On Downtown Tunnel Transfer Agreement

The three-year delay in Link Light Rail announced by Sound Transit will produce a similar three year delay in the transfer of the downtown tunnel from King County to Sound Transit, with the consequent need to re-negotiate the agreement. Sound Transit will not take over the bus tunnel until they will be able to install light rail, now projected for 2007 instead of 2004.

A King County Council staff report estimated three key costs to King County resulting from the delay:

  1. $28 million from debt service payments on tunnel construction bonds that Sound Transit will assume once they take possession of the tunnel.
  2. $7.4 million estimated annual cost for maintenance, fuel and operating costs of the dual diesel and electric Breda buses used in the tunnel ($22.2 million over three years). According to the staff report, “The existing fleet of dual-powered Breda buses is near its useful life and would need to be replaced or refurbished to continue beyond their previously established retirement date in 2004.” The report also notes that additional purchase of new electric buses may also be necessary.
  3. King County’s plans for the redevelopment of the Convention Place station into Transit Oriented Development may have a fiscal impact on the County.

The Inspector General’s report noted “The change to the bus tunnel agreement alone could increase Project costs by $60 million”.

Resolution 30301: Downtown Tunnel Transfer Agreement

Resolution 30301 calls for a re-negotiation of the agreement between King County, Sound Transit and the City of Seattle, and was essentially a statement of support for a similar resolution passed by the King County Council in February. The key interest for the City of Seattle is that bus service not be lost, which could happen without a re-negotiation.

The discussion at the Transportation committee of Resolution 30301 on the Downtown Tunnel Transfer Agreement was uncontroversial.

On Monday, January 9, the Full Council passed this resolution by a 8-0 vote, CM McIver was absent.

Resolution 30300: Light Rail Review Panel

I also introduced and co-sponsored Resolution 30300 on the Link Light Rail Project Review Committee. Sound Transit appointed this committee to conduct of six month review of the light rail project.

The resolution called on the Board of Sound Transit to allow the Review Committee to consider other transit alternatives; add neighborhood representation, and delay the acquisition of property and contract negotiations until the review committee completed its work; and further called on the Board of Sound Transit to vote on these items in open session. A number of community groups had co-signed a letter to Sound Transit requesting that neighborhoods be represented in the Review Committee.

At the Committee I amended the resolution by removing the section on delaying property acquisition. This section proved to be a lightning rod with light rail supporters because Sound Transit could not delay its negotiations on acquiring a maintenance site without delaying the project for years. Consequently I excluded it in the hope of attracting enough Council Member votes to pass the legislation which would still broaden the scope of the review and add neighborhood representatives to the Review Committee.

Votes

This amended version was approved 7-2 (Nicastro and Steinbrueck) and was the version up for consideration. Nicastro and Steinbrueck supported broadening the scope and membership of the Review Committee but felt that property acquisition should also be delayed.

Councilmember Conlin then introduced an amendment that eliminated the entire resolution (except for one “whereas” clause), and replaced it with a resolution that generally expressed support for Sound Transit but requested that it consider neighborhood needs. However it did not call for neighborhood representation or consideration of alternatives. It passed by a 5-2 vote (McIver, Pageler, Compton, Conlin, Wills voted “yes”; Licata and Steinbrueck voted “no”.

At this point, I made a motion to re-introduce the section on neighborhood representation, which failed 5-2 (same votes). I decided not to re-introduce the section on considering other transit alternatives and routes, as it was clear it would not pass.

The final vote on the Conlin version of the resolution passed on to the Full Council with a 3-3 vote (resolutions do not require a majority to move to the Full Council). Voting “yes” were Conlin, Wills, and Licata, voting “no” were McIver, Pageler and Compton. I voted ‘yes’ to keep something on the table with the intent to amend it at the Full Council Meeting. I will not, however support it as currently written. A Full Council vote is scheduled for Monday, April 16.

Sound Transit’s Other Problems

The Sounder, the heavy rail line which runs from Seattle to Tacoma and planned to eventually run up to Everett, is facing some financial difficulties. There is an apparent need to raise the Tacoma-to-Seattle line’s equipment and construction budget by 7 percent.

Last Wednesday Sound Transit announced that it can’t cover all the needed track improvements, locomotives, ticket machines and other so-called “capital” expenses of Sounder with its planned $574 million budget.

Sound Transit says various cutbacks and windfalls will more than make up for extra costs, so the three-county agency will ask its board to approve raising Sounder’s capital budget to $615 million. If that happens, the ledger for Sounder would show overruns of $41 million.

Sounder is currently behind its planned implementation schedule. It has two daily round-trips so far, instead of the nine promised to voters. There is no prospect of even four daily round-trips until four or five years from now. Sounder won’t add a third round-trip until early next year. The wait for a fourth round-trip might last until 2005.

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