Nickeled and damned?

County Council member and mayoral hopeful Greg Nickels bets the farm on Sound Transit's shaky finances.

IS SOUND TRANSIT ON TIME and on budget? Greg Nickels says yes. The King County Council member and likely candidate for mayor has hooked his political future to this train: He spearheaded a countywide ballot measure back in the late '80s that helped establish the "mandate" for light rail, and he helped lead the charge for the multi-billion-dollar, three-county Sound Transit proposal when it was approved by voters in 1996. (Ironic, given that no part of the system will serve his home base, West Seattle.)

As a Sound Transit board member, Nickels spent much of last summer defending light rail from the revisionist attacks of fellow board members Paul Schell and Ron Sims. And as head of Sound Transit's Finance Committee, he oversees perhaps the diciest part of the tunnel-train-and-bus system: scraping up enough money to pay for the thing.

"I don't know any elected official involved with Sound Transit who doesn't have sleepless nights," says Nickels. "We as a region have never done anything this big, and the risks are enormous. But we're working very hard to try to give the public all the assurance we can that their money is being well spent."

For a numbers guy, Nickels proves to be rather sketchy on figures. In an interview, he could provide neither the current projected cost of the system as a whole nor of light rail in particular. But he contends that the project is on target overall. Parts of the system are "under budget," he says, such as commuter rail cars that were bought for cheaper than expected, and other parts are ahead of schedule, such as express buses that got out onto the street early. And he says "the planning phase" of light rail is on schedule, which is crucial for securing federal funding.

Still, it would seem a stretch to regard Sound Transit as "on budget." According to the agency's soon-to-be-published year 2000 budget, the transit project is now slated to cost $4.4 billion—a half-billion more than what voters approved back in 1996. (These figures are in constant dollars, not counting inflation.)

And that's before Sound Transit contractors start trying to burrow their way under Capitol Hill and across the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

WHY THE BALLOONING budget? A primary reason is that Sound Transit is being forced to rely significantly more on debt than it had originally planned. During Phase I of the project, which ends in 2006, Sound Transit will have to cough up debt payments that are twice what it originally budgeted—an increase of $166 million.

Federal funds are not arriving at anything like the expected rate. Sound Transit told voters it would collect some $700 million in federal government grants to pay for the 24-mile electric light rail line, which is supposed to run from SeaTac to the University District. But at this point, Congress has come through with just $17 million.

Those grants may begin to pick up next year. But since Sound Transit has pledged to get its system finished by 2006, the agency is being forced to max out its credit card to generate the necessary cash. As a result, building out this first phase of the plan is going to so exhaust resources that, as Nickels readily admits, the agency will have to seek another tax increase from voters, and soon, if it's to afford the necessary expansion of the system.

"The agency's bitten off more than they can chew," contends King County Council member Rob McKenna, a Republican from Bellevue, who serves with Nickels on the agency's Finance Committee. McKenna predicts that a vote for another tax increase "is going to be a real fight. People are going to be skeptical about dumping more money into transit when it hasn't delivered much."

Sound Transit can hardly be accused of "cost overruns," since large-scale construction is not yet under way. But their 10-year budget has been growing for a number of other reasons, some of which reflect positive news.

For example, the local taxes that help fund Sound Transit have been pouring in like a gusher from the Eastside, so transit planners have approved $50 million worth of increased spending for express bus service in the 'burbs. Sound Transit also spent $23 million to buy the renovated Union Station building as its headquarters last year—an unanticipated expense that the agency claims will ultimately save money on rent (though officials were unable to say how much they had previously budgeted for office space).

The light rail plan has also been embellished in some cases. For example, the electric-powered trains will be descending on Sea-Tac Airport via two miles of aerial tracks (appropriately enough). Paul Bay, Sound Transit's light rail director, says that airborne passenger delivery, while expensive, will result in much better overall access to the airport. Sound Transit also will ring up extra costs by boring through Beacon Hill on its way to Martin Luther King Jr. Way rather than sending trains down the middle of Rainier Avenue as originally proposed.

The light rail line is currently budgeted at $1.9 billion, $200 million more than the original '96 plan, and this summer Sound Transit will start receiving bids on what Nickels calls "the mother of all contracts": the Capitol Hill tunnel. At that point, he says, the agency should have a better idea as to whether the project can be built for close to its current forecasts.

Even bringing the current plan in at $1.9 billion required painful sacrifices. In a vote last November, Sound Transit's board of directors decided to delay a station for Beacon Hill, which would have been the most heavily used in South Seattle. They also put off constructing a station at South Royal Brougham Way to serve the two new stadiums and declined to include more than a single station on Capitol Hill.

The board was also unable to find any means of reaching Northgate—a $400 million task that is widely viewed as essential for making the light rail system work.

Technically speaking, the Beacon Hill and Royal Brougham stations have only been "deferred." The problem is that Sound Transit is tying up its resources so far into the future that it will have no money available to pay for these additions even after Phase I is completed in 2006.

SOUND TRANSIT IS planning to sell some $1.4 billion in bonds, a third more than originally forecast. These bonds will be paid off by the taxes that voters in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties agreed to impose on themselves back in 1996 (a 0.4 percent sales tax and a 0.3 percent motor vehicle tax). Like taxes everywhere these days, the Sound Transit levy has been throwing off generous amounts of cash, and neither Nickels nor McKenna thinks the agency will have any trouble covering its debts.

However, because so much money is being soaked up by Phase I of the project, little will be left over for building a station on Beacon Hill (cost: $500 million) or for sending light rail north of the U District (cost of reaching Snohomish County: $820 million). Even if voters were to agree to tax themselves at the same rate for another 10 years, and even if there are no major cost overruns—a notion that might make Pollyanna choke—Sound Transit staff estimate only $135 million will be available after Phase I to expand the system in North King County.

"There are a couple places where we're being stretched," Nickels concedes.

Sound Transit is still counting on winning a significant amount of money from the feds. It hopes to establish a "Full Funding Grant Agreement" with the Federal Transit Administration this year, a step that officials says will result in more consistent, and more generous, infusions from the US Treasury.

But Sound Transit's board has already agreed to extend the amount of time that the agency has to rope in this money, allowing it until 2011. As McKenna observes, "We're already obligating five years worth of federal funding beyond Phase I just to get to the U District." In fact, Sound Transit officials want to issue $200 million worth of so-called "Grant Anticipation Notes"—which would be backed by fed money received in future years. The interest on these bonds will cost another $38 million. But Nickels argues, "Waiting is even more expensive. Time is money in a project like this."

Nickels says that future expansion will require a tax hike, and he expects Sound Transit to go to the voters for another shot of financing in 2004, perhaps earlier. "My goal is to have a modest increase, maybe 0.1 percent." Sound Transit's own financial staff says the tax increase will have to be at least twice that.

Will voters be willing to not only extend their current taxes but pony up even more for Sound Transit so soon? "[Sound Transit's] not going to have much to show in 2003," says McKenna, "especially in Seattle." Indeed, at that point, Seattle voters will be mostly familiar with a giant gaping hole on Broadway and the massive traffic disruption downtown as the bus tunnel is closed for conversion to light rail.

But Nickels looks on the bright side. "People will have four to five years of experience with our Regional Express busses and commuter rail. They will see the light rail taking shape, see the stations rising out of the ground. I think there will be a lot of support to begin extensions immediately."

For the sake of his own political "mobility," Nickels had better be right.

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