Getting light rail from Federal Way to Tacoma just got more expensive

Getting light rail from Federal Way to Tacoma just got more expensive
This is the new Angle Lake station for Sound Transit’s LINK light rail. It’s on South 200th Street in SeaTac. The parking structure is in background. (Peter Haley, The News Tribune)

Getting light rail to Tacoma by 2030 is now going to cost $3.3 billion — a 10% increase — the Sound Transit executive board was told Thursday.

Reductions in tax and fare revenue brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic along with rising costs in real estate and construction are pushing up the cost of the planned line from Federal Way to the Tacoma Dome.

The new cost estimate for the roughly 10-mile extension is up from a previous $2.99 billion estimate in 2019.

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Sound Transit deputy CEO Kimberly Farley called 2020 a double bind year: Revenues declined but costs continued to increase.

“The construction industry remains strong,” Farley said. “Property values are setting records despite COVID-19 recession and the agency’s revenues are declining.”

Although the Federal Way to Tacoma segment is early in its design phase, it will travel mostly in public right of ways, reducing real estates costs compared with other Sound Transit projects. The bulk of the increases are coming from stormwater collection requirements and the elevation of three miles of track along Interstate 5 that was originally planned to be at-grade, the agency said.

The track is being elevated due to environmental and tribal cultural concerns, said Don Billen, Sound Transit’s executive director of planning.

“We would recommend elevating the alignment in this area in order to avoid potential impacts to those resources on and near tribal lands,” he told the board.

The Tacoma project’s increase of 10% is a fraction of other similar projects. The West Seattle and Ballard extensions are going up by 53-59%.

“These numbers are really quite sobering,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said Thursday. “They’re not catastrophic.”

Costs can be reduced by building projects in phases and over time to take advantage of financing opportunities at the local, state and federal levels, Rogoff said.

Projects currently under construction, such as the Tacoma Link Hilltop extension and the Angle Lake to Federal Way Link extension, were not affected by the cost increase. Only the planned projects were affected because the Sound Transit board hasn’t selected which proposed version of each project is to be built. It also hasn’t established their final cost estimates or construction schedules.

The voter-approved 2016 Sound Transit 3 plan included an extension of Tacoma Link to Tacoma Community College. It will now face a 36% increase.

In Tacoma, the Hilltop Link extension is now 70% complete, Sound Transit said Thursday. The expanded operations and maintenance facility near Freighthouse Square should be mostly completed by the end of March. The extension is scheduled to open in 2022.