When I reached Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff by phone this morning, he sounded unwell.
"I'm on my way to Olympia to try to protect one revenue source while looking at the loss of revenues from Washington, D.C.," Rogoff said. "It's a grim day."
Rogoff was headed to the state legislature to try to fight Republican efforts there to reduce the amount of tax dollars Sound Transit can collect from car tab fees to fund light rail projects.
Meanwhile in D.C.: President Donald Trump's 2018 budget. Among the many disasters in the budget proposal is the fact that it would slash funding for transit projects that don't already have federal funding agreements.
In Puget Sound, that means light rail expansion is under threat.
"It really is a body blow," Rogoff said, "especially to our efforts in the near term to get to Lynnwood and Federal Way."
As Sound Transit works to extend light rail service throughout the region, the agency is currently in the planning process for extending lines north to Lynnwood and south to Federal Way. The Sound Transit 3 package voters approved in November will extend those lines even farther to Everett and Tacoma, as well as fund new lines to Ballard, West Seattle, Redmond, and Issaquah. While most of Sound Transit's funding comes from local taxes, the agency also budgets for federal grants.
Sound Transit was expecting to get $1.174 billion in federal money in 2018 for the line to Lynnwood, and another $500 million to get to Federal Way. Those numbers represent about half of the total cost for the Lynnwood project and around a third of the cost to get to Federal Way.
If the budget takes effect, it will be up to the Sound Transit Board to decide which light rail projects get delayed to backfill the lost funding. (Theoretically, the state legislature could also kick some money Sound Transit's way but yeah right.) Lynnwood is currently expected to open in 2023; Federal Way is slated to open in 2024. A Sound Transit spokesperson said it's too soon to know how long those projects could be delayed without federal funding.
Beyond Lynnwood and Federal Way, it's unclear exactly what this means. A future Congress or president could reinstate federal funding agreements for transit projects. But delays to Lynnwood and Federal Way could have a ripple effect on all the projects voters approved in Sound Transit 3 last year. About 13 percent of the $54 billion ST3 package was expected to come from the feds. In total, Sound Transit is counting on $7.7 billion in federal funding to finish all of its currently planned light rail projects in Puget Sound.
"That is all seemingly at risk now," Rogoff said.
As Sound Transit was developing the ST3 plan in recent years, Rogoff said he intentionally kept the federal funding portion of the budget low because he didn't think the feds were likely to increase how much they were spending on transit projects, even if local taxpayers agreed to tax themselves more.
Even so, Rogoff added, "we didn’t anticipate a scenario where the federal government completely walks away from the table."
Trump's budget could also hit funding for other Seattle transit projects like bus rapid transit on Madison Street and a new downtown streetcar. I have calls in to the Seattle Department of Transportation and King County Metro and will update when I know more.
The Seattle Department of Transportation
declined to provide has not yet provided specific estimates of how much funding that department's projects could stand to lose under Trump's budget, instead deferring to Mayor Ed Murray. Murray issued a statement today saying, "We knew we couldn’t count on the new administration to partner on our progressive agenda to fund transit, build affordable housing, and be proactive about health and human services."
King County has listed projects that could take a hit other than Sound Transit, including the downtown streetcar known as the Center City Connector and a new rapid bus between Paine Field/Boeing and Canyon Park/Bothell. Madison Street BRT could lose federal funding, too, though the county doesn't specify how much. Capitol Hill Seattle Blog has reported that $62 million of the project's $120 million total cost would come from Federal Transit Agency grants.
Trump's budget would also kill the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, which has in the past helped fund local projects like the South Park Bridge and improvements to the Mercer Corridor.
"Given the hateful and wrongheaded ideas of this president, it’s no real surprise that his first proposed budget is an assault on the environment, economy and mobility of King County, and on the most vulnerable among us," King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a statement. "Nonetheless, the depravity of this proposal is shocking."