Seattle’s ‘Sound Transit’ to Cost Nearly Double Original Estimate

Published May 1, 2007

In 1996, Seattle-area voters approved the first phase of construction for a new transit system serving Central Puget Sound, dubbed Sound Transit.

Today, Sound Transit estimates phase 1 will be completed more than a decade late and $11 billion over budget. In November, Seattle-area voters will be asked to approve or reject the plan’s second phase.

Sound Transit phase 2 (ST2) would spend about $20 billion for extensions to light rail, bus, and commuter rail service. That would put the total cost at $35 billion, according to Sound Transit estimates … assuming the second phase does not experience the same cost overruns as the first.

Commuter Demand

The November ballot proposal comes in response to growing demand on Puget Sound’s transportation system. Population estimates show the region will gain 1.2 million people in the next 20 years.

The Washington Department of Transportation’s November 2006 Congestion Report concluded travel times have increased on nearly every major route monitored in the region. Nonetheless, elected officials plan to build very little new road capacity. They say the solution is mass transit.

Cost Overruns

In 1996, area voters agreed to a 10-year temporary 0.4 percent sales and use tax increase and a 0.3 percent Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET). The money was to pay for a commuter rail service, a regional bus system connecting Pierce, Snohomish, and King Counties, and Washington’s first light rail segment.

Sound Transit officials said the plan would cost $3.9 billion and take 10 years to complete.

Sound Transit officials now say the cost of the first phase is approaching $15 billion and it will not be completed until 2020. In addition, Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl says she intends to collect the 0.4 percent sales tax in perpetuity, even after the first phase is completed.

To fund the second phase of light rail, commuter rail, and bus system extensions, Sound Transit is asking voters to raise the sales tax by another 0.5 percent.

A One-in-Four Solution

If ST2 is approved, Sound Transit predicts the overall system would carry 351,000 riders per day by 2030, about one in four of the predicted 1.2 million people who are expected to move into the region over the next 20 years. The remaining 850,000 people would spill onto the system’s already-congested roadways.

Based on the agency’s own projections, 93 percent of the region would not use the Sound Transit system and congestion would only grow worse.

“Sound Transit’s plan to spend $35.2 billion to move less than a quarter of the region’s projected population growth by 2030 is not only expensive, it is not even enough to reduce today’s congestion at today’s current population,” said Paul Guppy, vice president for research with Washington Policy Center. “If Sound Transit’s second phase is implemented, we will do nothing more than spend $35.2 billion for 50 more years of congestion.”

Wendell Cox, senior fellow for urban growth and transit policy at The Heartland Institute, said he doubts the accuracy of the ridership projections.

“Approximately 98 percent of motorized travel in the Seattle area is by car now, so to get transit to reduce that to 93 percent is about as likely as pigs flying,” Cox said.

Also, Cox said, soaring housing costs in the area have slowed population growth, and he expects this to continue.

“The growth rates [estimates] are highly inflated by the failure of local officials to take into consideration the slower rates likely to occur because housing has become so unaffordable,” Cox said.

Potential Savings Ignored

King County, Washington’s largest county and home to Seattle, recently passed Transit Now, a voter-approved bus initiative. King County optimistically estimates it will remove 50,000 passenger vehicles from the roadways by adding 175 new buses.

The expansion will cost about $50 million–a cost of $1,000 to move one traveler to the public transportation system, compared to the $100,000 per person projected cost of Sound Transit.

“Spending should be prioritized based on a return of investment and measured through reductions in delay and travel times,” said Dick Paylor, chair-elect of the Eastside Transportation Association, a private-sector group drawing its membership mostly from the east side of Lake Washington in King County.

Paylor continued, “Transit has a small market share in most major corridors, and our investment policy should reflect the fact that the vast majority of demand requires road capacity for the mobility of goods and people.”

Michael Ennis ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Transportation Policy at the Washington Policy Center, an independent research firm in Seattle.

For more information …

“The Cost of Sound Transit,” by Michael Ennis, Policy Note, Washington Policy Center,