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Originally published October 25, 2012 at 8:24 PM | Page modified October 26, 2012 at 3:01 PM

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Sound Transit gets mixed reviews in state audit

While Sound Transit adjusted well to the recession, its light-rail ridership forecasts seem over-optimistic and its citizen-oversight panel lacks teeth, says a new report by state Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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While Sound Transit adjusted well to the recession, its light-rail ridership forecasts seem over-optimistic and its citizen-oversight panel lacks teeth, says a new report by state Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Sonntag worries about whether the next round of transit-tax proposals, nicknamed "ST3," will get enough scrutiny before they reach voters in a few years. Potential projects include Seattle streetcars, a $2 billion light-rail segment reaching Federal Way, and $1.3 billion for a Woodinville-Renton commuter train on an abandoned freight route.

So far, elected officials on the transit board seem lukewarm to the Eastside train, and Sound Transit replies in the audit: "There is no presumption that an ST3 measure would include such investments."

The 125-page report, released Thursday, was done under authority of Tim Eyman's Initiative 900, which called for performance audits of agencies throughout the state. Overall, Sonntag said, he's pleased with the quality of the report and Sound Transit's cooperation.

Voters in 2008 approved a sales-tax boost and an $18 billion expansion called ST2, mostly for light rail to Overlake, Lynnwood and Southwest King County by the early 2020s.

Sonntag said the agency made a reasonable decision to cut or postpone $4 billion in projects, as a result of reduced tax income.

The audit affirms Sound Transit management has the skill "to accomplish most of the adjusted ST2 plan within budget." It praised a policy called Phase Gate, where leaders examine the spending trend at each step — engineering, bidding, construction, operations — before moving ahead.

Contingency funds to cover cost overruns have eroded to 11 percent instead of the desirable 15 to 25 percent, so any mistakes or economic slowdowns might delay projects, the report said.

Auditors didn't delve into the long-term debt load, expected to last beyond 2040, except to note that only $2 billion in new projects can be financed as of 2023 without new ST3 taxes.

Sonntag took special aim at the Citizen Oversight Panel, a group of volunteers chosen by the transit board itself. Panelists have included members of pro-transit nonprofits, and two whose present or former companies received Sound Transit contracts. Sonntag questions "whether COP members fully understand their watchdog role."

However, in September the group issued a tough letter highlighting low ridership on the Sounder north commuter trains, and asking whether service should be reduced.

Sonntag suggests having the Legislature choose the panel, and that the panel have money to hire expert staff. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick replies the agency is heavily monitored by the Federal Transit Administration and others, and a specialized Expert Review Panel studies plans before they hit the ballot.

The audit also questioned official ridership predictions — politically charged numbers often cited to promote a ballot measure or ask for federal grants. Sound Transit predicts 280,000 daily light-rail boardings by 2030, which the audit said presumes an improbable 13.5 percent annual growth. The first line from Seattle to SeaTac served close to 30,000 daily boardings this summer, a 10 percent yearly gain but behind the 2020 target of 45,000.

Sound Transit says it will add more than 30 miles of track, some in densely populated areas, so rapid growth is attainable. "There will be increased demand for congestion-free transit service," said Patrick, "which is what light rail is all about."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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