Urban Politics #202: Sound Transit Light Rail and First Hill Station

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

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.





Sound Transit Light Rail And First Hill Station

The Council voted 7-1 (Licata) on Monday for a resolution encouraging Sound Transit to keep a light rail station on First Hill in their plans
for the light rail line (Della absent). The First Hill station demonstrates the project’s complexity, and the difficult choices and tradeoffs involved in planning the rail line. While I support the good intentions of the resolution, I voted “no” because of the potential $1 billion impact, and the impact it may have on extensions for Phase 2 of Link Light Rail.

Sound Transit recently indicated it believes light rail can reach from downtown to Husky Stadium without a new tax if 1) the First Hill station is eliminated, and 2) if $650 million in federal funds are obtained. These are two significant “ifs”.

An insider staff memo to King County Executive Ron Sims last month said that, “The north segment (going to Northgate) would still be very competitive for federal funding without First Hill.” What he does not say, is that with First Hill, the chances of Sound Transit qualifying for the $650 in federal funds may zero out. If you add the $650 million in lost federal funds to the additional $350 million needed to dig the First Hill tunnel, that station would cost Sound Transit about one billion dollars.

The Sound Transit board is scheduled to vote on July 28 whether to include the station in a grant application for federal funding due on
August 15.

The First Hill Station

There are compelling reasons to include a First Hill station in the light rail line. First Hill is the highest-density residential and commercial area on the line outside of downtown. The projected ridership is over 10,000 daily riders; it is projected to have the second highest ridership for the PM peak hour. It was also included in the 1996 plan approved by voters. If it is not included, it won’t be added later.

Station Cost

Sound Transit estimates the First Hill station will cost $350 million. It would be over 200 feet underground, in an area with complex soils.
According to the King County Staff memo, it “represents the most complex engineering challenge” on the route. “It is deep and being
built in an area with several mid-rise and one high rise structure. And the staging areas ideally should be larger. Beacon Hill has shown what we already knew, that the soils in this area are complex, unconsolidated deposits of glacial till and that they are not ideal for mining or for boring tunnels.”

With these risks identified, it could cost more than $350 million. The Council resolution calls on Sound Transit to examine ways to reduce the costs and risks, which I support.

Federal Funding

The impact of the station would be greater than $350 million, however. The plan to get to Husky Stadium depends on receiving $650 million in federal funding. If the First Hill station is included, it is unlikely federal funding can be obtained, due to the current modeling practice and guidelines that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) uses to grant funds for rail projects.

FTA’s transit modeling shows that the First Hill station is projected to add 200 new transit riders (i.e. people who don’t use buses now).
This produces “no new benefit” under FTA definitions, inadequate to qualify for federal funding, unless criteria are changed.

On the other hand, if First Hill were not included, the project would be “very competitive for federal funding without First Hill,” as was
stated above by King County Staff memo. So, including the $350 million station cost and up to $650 million in possible lost federal funding, it’s a decision with ramifications up to $1 billion.

Including the First Hill station would mean the portion of the light rail line from downtown to Husky Stadium would need to be locally
funded, which means a new tax would be needed, or the line would need to shortened for the current phase. To some degree, greater reliance on bond financing could be used, adding long-term interest costs, similar to what the Seattle Monorail Project attempted to do to cover their increased costs and revenue shortfall in their aborted financial plan.

Sound Transit Phase 2

Sound Transit is considering going to the ballot next year for additional funding for “phase 2” to extend the light rail line. A
sales tax appears to be the most likely option. If the First Hill station is not included, Sound Transit believes it can make it to Husky Stadium with current funding. Thus, a phase 2 tax could get the rail line to Northgate.

If First Hill is included, and federal funding is not available, a phase 2 tax would be needed just to get to Husky Stadium, and the sales
tax would need to be even higher to get to Northgate, making it possibly harder to pass at the polls.

Sound Transit estimates that getting to Husky Stadium with First Hill would require a 0.2% sales tax increase above the 0.4% sales tax that
Sound Transit currently receives. The sales tax increase would have to be higher if Sound Transit does not receive the additional Federal
Funds. It would need to be higher yet to get to Northgate; getting to Northgate has been estimated to require a new 0.4% sales tax.

Because of these concerns, I voted “no.” Although there is no easy answer to the dilemma the First Hill station poses, the best option at
this time would be to have a fuller public briefing on the taxes needed to complete the original Sound Transit proposal of going to the
University District.

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