Light-rail debt a 50-year ride
If Sound Transit wins voter approval to extend light rail far beyond Seattle at a cost of more than $23 billion by 2027, taxpayers would...
Seattle Times transportation reporter
If Sound Transit wins voter approval to extend light rail far beyond Seattle at a cost of more than $23 billion by 2027, taxpayers would still owe an additional $14 billion in construction debt afterward.
Financing costs mean that voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties will be looking at a half-century commitment when they decide on a regional-transportation measure in November. The last bonds for the 50-mile rail plan, and other transit projects, would be paid off in 2057.
By then, Sound Transit's spending would exceed $37 billion, counting inflation and interest charges.
Agency leaders say a more accurate number is $10.8 billion, representing the cost of construction and trains in 2006 dollars.
As with a home mortgage, it makes sense for voters to focus on the current sales price, said spokesman Ric Ilgenfritz. People who cite the long-term, inflated numbers "make the cost seem misleadingly high," Sound Transit says.
The plan would extend light rail east to Overlake, south to Tacoma and north to Ash Way at 164th Street Southwest, near Interstate 5 in Snohomish County.
Sound Transit's proposal will be linked in a single ballot question Nov. 6 with regional highway projects.
Add $37.9 billion in transit dollars to $16.1 billion for the roads, and the tally reaches $54 billion, including debt and inflation.
For the average household, this would mean $150 in new sales taxes next year and $68 in new car-tab taxes for the average automobile — figures that would go up with inflation until at least 2027.
Sound Transit leaders have said that with the expense, they're offering a far-reaching rail system to satisfy popular demand. "You've got a big problem, and you've got a big solution to solve the problem," Ilgenfritz said.
The multibillion-dollar totals, far into the future, are little more than educated guesses.
Nonetheless, they're politically loaded. Sound Transit's supporters and critics will likely cite whichever figures fortify their campaign arguments.
Comparisons will be made to the Seattle Monorail Project's short-lived, 50-year finance proposal, whose $11 billion total (to pay off a $2.1 billion Green Line) torpedoed the project's political support two years ago. More recently, a proposed six-lane Alaskan Way tunnel in Seattle foundered after the state changed its cost estimate from $3.6 billion to $4.6 billion, to fully account for inflation.
Michael Ennis, transportation analyst for the fiscally conservative Washington Policy Center, said the monorail and viaduct episodes prove that voters care about the totals, and understand them.
"They do not need to be babied," he said.
Sound Transit's finance director, Brian McCartan, said its policies are much more conservative than the monorail project, which considered some high-interest "junk bonds" to make up for a shortage in car-tab tax revenue. Sound Transit has a larger tax base, and McCartan said it can sell bonds at low interest rates, in line with most transportation projects.
Some bond debt would linger until 2057 because Sound Transit would wait until the 2020s to sell some 30-year bonds.
"We think they're building a towering pyramid of debt and taxation," which limits future expansions, said John Niles, a bus-rapid-transit advocate and Sound Transit critic.
Sound Transit is building light rail from Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and intends to bore a tunnel to Husky Stadium, using sales and car-tab taxes approved in 1996.
The road debt would end by 2037, or two decades before Sound Transit bonds are paid off. That's partly because the proposed highway tax covers construction only, while Sound Transit also has operating costs, said Amy Arnis, a state Department of Transportation finance expert.
Sound Transit predicts that after construction ends in 2027, debt payments each year would gradually decline. So it could either reduce the sales tax or ask voters to apply the tax to additional projects.
But if the transit lines get slammed by construction cost overruns or by high operating expenses, state court rulings have given Sound Transit permission to keep collecting taxes at the full rate — for as long as it takes — to finish whatever projects the voters approved.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com
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