Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Critical Federal Issues Bearing on the
 Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA)
For Seattle Central Link Light Rail

by John Niles, Technical Coordinator
Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives (CETA)

Over several years of research, CETA members developed a "punch list" of issues that should have been resolved before the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) executed (on October 24, 2003) a Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) committing Sound Transit and FTA to the construction of Central Link Light Rail Initial Segment.  Most of these issues are still outstanding as of November 2004.

The punch list consists of the following six issues:

bulletInvalid "Highly Recommended" Rating Was Cooked Up to Justify Federal Funding
bulletRecommended 3rd Party Memorandum of Agreement with Tukwila Not Established
bulletAt-Grade Railroad Design is a Category 1C Safety Hazard Under FTA Guidelines
bulletShort Initial Segment Leads to Chain of Future New Starts Funding Demands
bulletLocal Financial Plan for Light Rail Crumbles Under Subregional Funding Rules
bulletRequired Annual Performance Audits Have Never Been Performed

All of the first five punch list items were foreshadowed in the May 15, 2003 CETA Report to Congress, available full text at Excerpts from that report bearing on the five are presented at the bottom of this page.  The sixth item is new since the CETA Report was prepared.

Summary of Each Punch List Item

Invalid "Highly Recommended" Rating was Cooked Up to Justify Federal Funding

The Federal interest: compliance with existing New Starts rules.

The "highly recommended" FTA New Starts ranking for the Link Initial Segment is unwarranted. This project should actually be "not recommended" under FTA rules because of an improper, poorly performing all-bus "no build" Baseline alternative that is at the core of the New Starts ranking. The Sound Transit Baseline is inferior in capacity and forecast ridership to reasonable and available all-bus alternatives. As a specific example, the Sound Transit conclusion of future efficiency from joint bus and train usage of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT) is an error. The DSTT was built with FTA funds in the 1980s, and is the premier central business district Bus Rapid Transit right of way in America. Adding the planned light rail to the DSTT will reduce both its capacity and ridership below its ongoing capacity with Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). In awarding Sound Transit an FFGA for the Initial Segment, FTA would move the Seattle region backward in mass public transit capability compared to obvious alternatives. Click here for additional details.

UPDATE: A new policy briefing from Washington Policy Center provides additional detail.

3rd Party Memorandum of Agreement with Tukwila Never Established

The Federal interest: compliance with existing New Starts rules.

There is no memorandum of agreement (MOA) between Sound Transit and City of Tukwila. The Tukwila Council voted against an MOA in June 2002 as a stance of official opposition to the Initial Segment alignment. A so-called "third party" agreement with a jurisdiction where the tracks will be laid is normally a firm requirement for an FFGA, but the requirement was waived by FTA in the case of Tukwila. As of November 2004, however, Sound Transit and City of Tukwila have agreed on all issues remaining to be resolved before construction begins, now planned for early 2005. Click here for additional details.

At-Grade Railroad Design is a Category 1C Safety Hazard Under FTA Guidelines

The Federal interest: public safety implications of Federal funding.

Central Link's design in the Rainier Valley creates an unnecessary hazard of intermodal collisions. Sound Transit and FTA have improperly assessed the at-grade light rail collision hazard with 272 daily trains crossing 18 Rainier Valley urban neighborhood streets at up to 35 mph. The planned physical design and operation of the Central Link Initial segment presents a Category 1C safety hazard under the Hazard Analysis Guidelines for Transit Projects published by the Federal Transit Administration in year 2000. The resulting Category 1C rating means that more than one fatality or serious injury is to be expected in any one million hours of system operation. Such a hazard is officially classified as "occasional, catastrophic, and unacceptable." The combination in Seattle of 23 at-grade vehicle crossings and ten additional signalized pedestrian crossings exposed to the planned 20 light rail trains per hour during peak weekday periods is an unsavory characteristic resulting from the right-of-way design and operations plan of the Initial Segment. Based on data from the 1999 Final EIS, historical light rail experience nationwide strongly suggests that this grade crossing feature is likely to kill eight people every decade of operation, or approximately 16 people before reaching one million hours of operation.  Click here for additional details.

UPDATE: The USDOT Highway/Rail Grade Crossing Technical Working Group (TWG) has recently issued a report indicating that when 20 trains per hour -- the 2010 peak hour schedule for Link -- cross the path of 1,100 cars per hour per lane, grade separation is indicated for light rail.  Year 2010 and beyond forecasts for vehicle volumes crossing Link light rail tracks have not been published. This report also indicated more generally that 75 passenger trains per day is the grade-crossing separation threshhold.  Link will see 272 trains per day. 

The PITF Light Rail Safety Page provides much more detail on the Link Light Rail safety issue.

Short Initial Segment Leads to Chain of Future New Starts Funding Demands

The Federal interest: future funding demands.

The Initial Segment's acceptability to many regional civic interests -- such as the Seattle downtown business community -- is dependent on unapproved light rail extensions going to Northgate and to S 200th Street in SeaTac. The 14 mile Initial Segment is integrally connected with these unaffordable extensions that would let Link reach the full 24 miles that Sound Transit is pledged to build.  However, the exact alignment, engineering, cost, and funding are undetermined for these extensions, and are set to remain so until after the Initial Segment is under construction. An FFGA without a full understanding of these committed extensions is the camel's nose in the Federal funding tent.  The full 24 miles of Link Light Rail is likely to cost $7.2 billion and require additional FTA New Starts grant funds to be affordable. Click here for additional details.

UPDATE:  Indeed, by the summer of 2006, Sound Transit was asking FTA for $750 million additional New Starts funding for the next 3.1 miles of light rail, an extension from Pine Street northward called "University Link."

Local Financial Plan for Light Rail Crumbles Under Subregional Funding Rules

The Federal interest: mitigating financial risk to taxpayers.

Sound Transit's financial stability depends on the subarea equity principle -- taxes must be spent in the subregion where collected. This principle will be violated in the peak construction spending years ahead, before Link light rail begins operation. Despite rhetorical pledges from Sound Transit Board leaders, a high risk of inter-subarea funds transfers lies ahead under the present financial plan, especially now that Initiative 776 -- cutting off Sound Transit's motor vehicle excise tax -- has been held constitutional by the State Supreme Court. Light rail brings two subareas breathtakingly close to authorized fiscal capacity, and an overrun on commuter rail is bringing a third subarea close to the brink as well. East King County suburban concerns over the long-term strength of policy firewalls could lead to State legislative changes that give these policies additional strength in law. Already, temporary contributions from East King subarea to the light rail subareas are authorized through subarea lending. This source of liquidity could potentially be either restricted or repealed, creating cash flow problems for Link Initial Segment. Click here for additional details from the CETA Report to Congress. 

smallnew8375.gif (926 bytes)UPDATE: Even more details on how subarea equity is being violated are presented in a new essay by Emory Bundy.

No Required Annual Performance Audits Performed

Federal interest lies in verifying Sound Transit's credibility in doing what it promises.

CETA members Will Knedlik and Emory Bundy have uncovered that Sound Transit has never conducted a "comprehensive performance audit through independent audit services" in the seven-years since voters approved its Ten-Year Regional Transit System Plan, a requirement of the Plan and subsequent Board resolution.  This issue is documented in the following description from Emory Bundy:

Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl sent a memo to the Sound Transit board, August 26, 2003, titled "Report on performance audit request."  (Download this document in pdf, with reference documents included.)  She contends that the agency is not obliged to conduct a performance audit, as described in the Ten-Year Plan and in Resolution 75.  However, the language of the Sound Move Plan adopted by voters in 1996 is clear on the promise of an annual comprehensive performance audit:

"Sound Move:  The Ten-Year Regional Transit System Plan
Appendix B:  Financial Policies

"To insure that the ten-year construction program development and implementation occurs within the framework and intent of these [financial] policies, the RTA will:

        a)  Conduct an annual comprehensive performance audit through independent audit services;

        b)  Appoint and maintain for the ten-year construction period a citizens' oversight committee, charged with an annual review of the RTA's performance audit and financial plan, for reporting and recommendations to the RTA Board."

There is a Federal interest in the conduct of these performance audits, because of the probability that they would reveal problems pertinent to the successful completion of the Link Light Rail project as defined by a Full Funding Grant Agreement.  The need for such audits has been clear for years.

For example, back in September 2000 there was a "Call for an Independent Audit" made by 88 citizens of the central Puget Sound region.  Sound Transit officials declared in response on September 6, 2000, that the agency had been "audited to death," there were "no cost overruns,"  and anyone who suggested otherwise was "twisting the truth." At the time, Sound Transit officials were in possession of bids for the Capitol Hill tunnel, the cheapest of which was $300 million more than the budget.  They also knew that the right-of-way costs in the Rainier Valley were multiples of what they were representing; they were claiming $42 million, the next month they admitted $90 million. The current budget is $233 million.  Independent estimates of cost overruns on the 1996 plan for 21 miles of light rail now come to about five billion dollars.

Sound Transit is obligated to commission an "annual comprehensive performance audit through independent audit services," just as it's obligated to "appoint and maintain a citizen's oversight committee for the ten-year construction period."  Furthermore, it is the explicit responsibility of the Citizen Oversight Panel to conduct "an annual review of the RTA's performance audit and financial plans"  That is what the Citizen Oversight Panel is created to do:  review the annual performance audit and financial plan and, having done so, make reports and recommendations to the board.  It cannot do its job unless the annual, independent performance audit is conducted--that's a fundamental precondition of its mission.

At the oral hearing for the Sane Transit v. Sound Transit lawsuit before the State Supreme Court, June 10, 2003, Justice Sanders directly asked Sound Transit's chief counsel, Desmond Brown, whether the agency is obliged to observe all the provisions of Resolution 75, or whether it is free to select and observe some portions, and not others.  Mr. Brown was unequivocal, and declared:  "All of them."


"Section 5. To ensure that the ten-year development and implementation program occurs within the framework and intent of the financial policies approved by Resolution 72, the RTA will conduct an annual comprehensive performance audit through independent audit services and appoint and maintain a citizens' oversight committee for the ten-year construction period. The oversight committee is charged with an annual review of the RTA's performance audit and financial plan and for reporting and recommendations to the Board."

Excerpts from the CETA Report to Congress of May 15, 2003

FTA acceptance of the Central Link Light Rail No Build comparative alternative used in FFGA qualification is unwarranted.

Sound Transit's No Build Baseline bus plan is portrayed to be inferior in capacity and forecast ridership to the Initial Segment alternative. However, a reasonable deployment of the buses in the No Build Baseline would show superior capacity and ridership. The Central Link Initial Segment would move the Seattle region backward in mass transit compared to a different deployment of buses in the No Build alternative.

Using information obtained through the Washington State Public Disclosure Act, CETA has determined that the Initial Segment would produce lower mass transit capacity and lower ridership than a No Build alternative that is defined to meet FTA requirements for a comparative benchmark. The No Build is compared to the Initial Segment as part of the justification for FTA New Starts funding. The No Build as well as the Initial Segment plan includes a core fleet of buses. The core fleet for both alternatives includes 200 tunnel buses as well as 1,700 additional non-tunnel buses to cover other express and local service throughout the Sound Transit three-county district.

Sound Transit's suggested No Build alternative would employ that same core fleet of 200 tunnel buses, plus 232 additional tunnel buses to supplement the core regional fleet. The contemplated tunnel buses would likely be hybrid powered, low floor for rapid boarding, and capable of operating both through the DSTT and on the regions' freeways. The No Build, inexplicably, also has about 200 hundred fewer non-tunnel buses than the bus fleet associated with the Initial Segment. This analysis focuses on the tunnel buses.

In the data submitted to FTA, Sound Transit claims that 31 light rail cars intermixed with the 200 tunnel express buses operating in the Downtown Bus Tunnel will provide the region with more capacity and more ridership than the alternative of keeping trains out of the DSTT and simply expanding the tunnel bus fleet to 432 buses and operating the DSTT at its full all-bus capacity. Specifically, Sound Transit says that it can deliver 16,000 more daily regional transit riders to the Seattle CBD on two-car trains from the Tukwila terminus and the Rainier Valley than by deploying 232 additional tunnel buses that could serve both the Initial Segment corridor and other parts of the region.

CETA’s analysis shows that the diametric opposite is true, as even a superficial comparison of 232 buses with 31 light rail cars would suggest. Our calculations focus on the marginal impact of alternative transit resources moving people into or out of Seattle CBD in the weekday 3.5 hour peak. We compared the capacity and ridership of the 31 rail cars of the Initial Segment Light Rail against the alternative of an additional 232 tunnel buses. For light rail, we use Sound Transit's New Starts reported estimates of light rail peak loadings to calculate 12,000 light rail riders in the 3.5 hour peak period, peak direction. We calculate light rail capacity using two-car trains at six minute headways as only 10,000 using the published schedule, which comports with some people getting off the train before others get on in the peak direction. For the No Build alternative of 232 extra tunnel buses making two round trips in the peak direction in many corridors including but not limited to the Initial Segment corridor, we estimate ridership at 21,000 and seated capacity at 27,000. The No Build incremental ridership is thus 75% greater than for Initial Segment, and the capacity is 170% greater.

The conclusion of CETA's analysis is that whether using new hybrids or electric trolley buses, the 232 additional tunnel buses in the No Build could be readily deployed to carry more mass transit riders than 31 light rail cars in one corridor. Furthermore, as shown in the summary table below, the capital cost of the no build is $1.2 billion less.

Sound Transit may even have inflated costs in its self-defined No Build alternative to make that alternative appear less attractive. As an economical No Build alternative, some of Metro's existing fleet of electric trolley buses could be used for tunnel service. The trolley bus routes running south of downtown approximate large parts of the Initial Segment light rail route. In other words, with fairly minor improvements King County Metro transit could carry the passengers in the Initial Segment corridor on enhanced trolley bus service at a small fraction of the cost of light rail. Trolley buses run just as clean as LRT, can use the DSTT with little or no modification, and will last for about twenty years before needing replacement or remanufacturing. The trolley buses can be deployed anywhere along Metro's extensive electrified system, including lines that already go from the University to downtown to south Seattle.

Peak Period, Peak Direction Comparison of Capacity and Ridership
Link Initial Segment in Comparison with No Build Alternative

  Core Vehicle Fleet to be used in the DSTT Incremental Peak Period, Peak Direction Vehicle Flow over 3.5 hour peak period Vehicle capacity in the Peak Period, Peak Direction Estimated Ridership in the Peak Period, Peak Direction Capital Costs from the New Starts Submission Corridors Served
Light Rail Initial Segment 31 light rail cars plus 200 tunnel buses The 31 rail cars deployed as 35 two-car trains with six minute headways. 9,590 passengers seated and standing 12,250 passengers seated and standing (short trips) $2.8 billion One 14 mile corridor Seattle CBD to Tukwila
No Build Alternative 432 tunnel buses The 232 extra tunnel buses making two one-way peak period trips. 26,448 passengers seated only 20,880 passengers seated (long trips) $1.6 billion The Initial Segment Corridor plus any other corridors to CBD
Advantage of No Build     176% more capacity 70% more ridership $1.2 billion lower capital cost Additional corridors served

Underlying data from Sound Transit documents. Estimates and chart prepared by CETA

Both NEPA and the FTA's own governing statutes and regulations emphasize the critical importance of studying reasonable project alternatives before proceeding with a light rail project. However, Sound Transit claim that its "single no-build/TSM alternative" includes "all reasonable cost-effective transit improvements within the Link light rail study area short of the proposed New Starts project" is contradicted by the fact that Metro has excluded Bus Rapid Transit as an option in the light rail study area. In its November 2001 policy paper proposing BRT plans for 2002-2007, Metro explains how much future potential there is for BRT in the Seattle area, but then emphasizes that: "Corridors that do or would compete [with light rail] were eliminated" from study. In other words, Metro has never studied BRT as a solution in the proposed light rail corridor itself. Yet this type of analysis is exactly what FTA's "baseline" alternatives definition calls for.

CETA therefore concludes that Sound Transit's No Build alternative, as they have defined and described it, is not a proper TSM Baseline alternative. No Build is not the "best" that can be done short of a New Start, as FTA regulations require. A properly defined and described No Build would demonstrate larger projected ridership and than the Central Link Initial Segment at a lower cost than Sound Transit's No Build shows.

CETA understands that FTA does not favor any one technology over another, but rather seeks to support transit projects – of whatever technology – that pass successfully through the competitive qualification process. The evidence shows that Sound Transit has insisted on light rail regardless of its comparative merit and without properly comparing alternatives to light rail as required. FTA oversight has failed to discern this violation of the rules for determining whether Link Initial Segment is qualified for FTA New Starts funding.

City of Tukwila Dissatisfaction

Tukwila City Council on June 17, 2002 voted against approving a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with Sound Transit related to official negotiated cooperation in implementing the approved alignment through the City. The most often declared reason for this negative vote was the belief on the part of Councilmembers and their constituents that the light rail alignment should go through the main Tukwila urban center, the Southcenter shopping district, rather than taking a shorter, more economical path to Tukwila's first and only planned light rail station at S 154th Street, the southern terminus and interim access to SeaTac Airport for the Initial Segment.

This unhappiness from Tukwila City leaders came even after the alignment of the Initial Segment route had already been changed in 2001 by Sound Transit at the request of City of Tukwila staff, to run closer to Southcenter on an elevated, less disruptive path than the grade-level alignment planned earlier. As stated later in the City of Tukwila newsletter of January 2003, "The City continues to work with the Sound Transit Board of Directors and staff to bring Light Rail to the Southcenter urban area. Though it's not there yet, we did influence the routing decision to bring it closer to that urban center, and will continue to do so."

As described by Sound Transit staff shortly after the vote, "the MOA was an agreement to encourage the city's participation in design review, to outline the process for Sound Transit to receive the permits it needs from the City of Tukwila and for the parties to continue a new era of cooperation and partnership, which Sound Transit believed started when the Sound Transit Board agreed to study and adopt the Tukwila Freeway Route. The MOA also identified a limited number of outstanding issues that the parties agreed to resolve during final design. It also described how the parties would work together to coordinate and meet objectives with clear lines of authority; described how the parties would interact to review designs; described how the parties would interact on the application and issuance of required permits; committed Sound Transit to pay $240,000 in compensation to Tukwila for the city's role in reviewing the light rail system's design and construction plans; and committed to a defined process to resolve disputes."

Shortly after the MOA was rejected, Mayor Steve Mullet of Tukwila declared, according to official city minutes from the July 1 Council meeting, "the City of Tukwila will treat any permit application submitted by Sound Transit with a straightforward and positive manner, as it treats all applicants submitting permit applications. This is how the City operates and it will not deviate from the norm. Sound Transit will not be pre-judged in light of the City's recent negative vote on the Memorandum of Agreement."

Earlier in 2001, the pending MOA with City of Tukwila was characterized by Sound Transit as a necessary Third Party Agreement required to secure Federal New Starts funding and was sought to be in place before FTA granted complete Final Design Approval for the Initial Segment. After the MOA was voted down by City Council, FTA Region 10 staff made the determination that the failure of Sound Transit to achieve the MOA with City of Tukwila would not be an obstacle for Sound Transit in obtaining the permit(s) needed to build light rail per the Initial Segment plans, and granted Final Design Approval.

The mitigating focus of regional political leadership seems now to be on planning for an eventual light rail branch line leading down to Southcenter. Two Sound Transit Board Members representing Tukwila sent a letter to the Sound Transit executive director in early 2003 requesting that this option be considered.

The Initial Segment At-Grade Design Presents Unacceptable Safety Hazards

The physical design of the Central Link Light Rail Initial Segment right of way in conjunction with planned train headways (spacing between trains) and speeds present potential safety hazards from collisions with motor vehicles and pedestrians in two sections:

Within the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT), during the peak period of weekdays in each of two directions, 10 trains will pass through per hour, interspersed with 60 buses. The mixture of trains and buses in a tunnel with station stops is not operated anywhere else in the world. Sound Transit plans to separate vehicles by use of a newly designed signaling system and relying on the judgment of vehicle operators. At each end of the tunnel, buses will be required to cross railroad tracks at grade in order to enter or depart the DSTT right of way.

At 18 ungated grade level crossings along Martin Luther King Jr. Way in the Rainier Valley, each weekday 272 trains in two directions will cross the paths of tens of thousands of motor vehicles, including cars, buses, and trucks. See map of Rainier Valley alignment above. The 1999 Final Environmental Impact Statement for Central Link Light Rail revealed that 29 collisions per year between trains and vehicles are expected in this corridor based on the history of similar systems.

The required mitigation measures in the Amended Record of Decision (May, 2002) for the Central Link Light Rail Initial Segment, in combination with the FTA Hazard Analysis Guidelines for Transit Projects (January, 2000), require Link to be safety certified for no more than one expected fatality per one million operating hours. Sound Transit converts this many hours to 131 years of operation.

Click here to see maps of the tracks and streets in Seattle's Rainier Valley.

wpe5.jpg (7599 bytes)

However, based on FTA statistics, light rail in America now generates in the range of three to six fatalities per one million operating hours, mostly from trains colliding with people and motor vehicles by accident. Combining the light rail grade crossing collision estimated occurrence rates cited in the 1999 Final EIS Transportation Technical Report for Central Link (29 per year with motor vehicles, 3 per year with pedestrians) with the fatality rates for low speed light rail collisions (at less than 35 mph, 1% for motor vehicle collisions, 18% for pedestrian collisions) cited in Light Rail Service: Pedestrian and Vehicular Safety (TCRP Report 69, National Academy Press, 2001) yields an estimate of four fatalities every five years.

In response to inquiries from CETA, on March 27, 2003, Sound Transit staff reported to a Sound Transit Board meeting that the Link Initial Segment can be certified to operate for at least 131 years with no chargeable accidents that result in severe injury or death. A "chargeable accident" is one that Sound Transit could have prevented through a better system design, or some other agency action that influences human behavior, such as signals, signs, and educational programs.

Sound Transit's use of a "chargeable accident" definition is a method of avoiding the changes in the system design that could make some kinds of fatalities literally impossible. Stated differently, by its "chargeable accidents" approach, Sound Transit demonstrates a willingness to ignore certain types of fatalities likely to be connected with operation of their planned light rail system. Their design includes many opportunities for collisions with drivers and pedestrians who are distracted, confused, impaired, careless, lacking knowledge, or reckless.

There is no reference to "chargeable accidents" in Federal Hazard Guidelines. CETA concludes that the dependence on this concept in Sound Transit's hazard analysis as reported on March 27 provides sufficient justification for the construction of the Initial Segment to be blocked until a new hazard analysis is performed without reference to whether an accident is chargeable.

Transit advocates and light rail neighbors who are disturbed at the prospect of 272 two- or four-car trains per day crossing the path of tens of thousands of motor vehicles daily at 18 grade crossings have been developing a growing understanding of the FTA-mandated safety hazard assessment processes. With new found expertise in conjunction with USDOT's top priority interest in safety, these activists may be able to force design changes in the Link Initial Segment that could add significant cost.

If design changes to eliminate potential intermodal fouling of the light rail right of way are ordered by a safety-conscious authority (such as FTA, State of Washington, City of Seattle, or even Sound Transit itself following receipt of new information) after construction gets underway, capital cost increases will likely occur.

Central Link Light Rail Project Scope Not Proper For FTA Funding

As described in the 2004 New Starts Report to Congress, Sound Transit is planning to build a 24-mile light rail transit line running north to south from the Northgate urban center through downtown Seattle and Southeast Seattle to the cities of Tukwila and SeaTac. Called Central Link, the system would operate on existing and new rights-of-way, including the existing 1.3-mile Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel (DSTT). Sound Transit plans to construct the entire system in phases.

The Sound Transit Board formally adopted a 7.2-mile initial Minimum Operable Segment, known as the MOS-1, for Federal participation in November 1999. After Congress and the USDOT IG raised significant questions

Concerned about project costs, the Sound Transit Board directed staff to re-examine the entire MOS-1 project to determine if a portion of the proposed line between University District and SeaTac could be identified as a new MOS. During the re-examination, the Sound Transit Board maintained its commitment to build the entire 24-mile alignment.

In November 2001 the Sound Transit Board decided to implement as a new MOS the Central Link Initial Segment, a 14-mile, 11-station line extending from Convention Place through downtown Seattle and terminating at South 154th in Tukwila. That route is shown in the map at left.

The May 2002 Record of Decision for Central Link Initial Segment in Attachment F, page 13 reaffirms, "the Initial Segment is a Minimum Operable Segment (MOS), which is a stand-alone portion of the project that has independent utility."

This definition is derived from Federal regulations at 23 CFR Part 771.111(f) which state the requirements for projects like the Initial Segment that are evaluated under NEPA rules. Three requirements are stated for projects like the Initial Segment of Link Light Rail: (1) Connect logical termini and be of sufficient length to address environmental matters on a broad scope; (2) Have independent utility or independent significance, i.e., be usable and be a reasonable expenditure even if no additional transportation improvements in the area are made; and (3) Not restrict consideration of alternatives for other reasonably foreseeable transportation improvements.

However, by these conditions, the Initial Segment is not a stand-alone portion of the 24 mile Central Link project, and the Initial Segment does not have independent utility. There are several ways in which the Initial Segment fails the test, but two stand out.

First, critically important light rail supporters do not want any possibility that Central Link runs a shorter length than Northgate to SeaTac Airport. As a key articulation of and agreement with this reality, the Sound Transit Board committed to the public at the behest of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce that the conversion of the DSTT to rail and joint operations with buses will not commence until the full northward route to Northgate is defined, committed, and funded. However, the alignment and funding of the tracks north is not scheduled to be determined until 2004 or later, and CETA has serious doubts about the feasibility of an affordable alignment being found.

Second, the physical design of the right of way between the Westlake Mall Station and the Convention Place northern terminus where trains reverse direction is dependent on the choice of northern alignment. But as already noted, the alignment of the tracks beyond the northern terminus of the Initial Segment will not be determined until 2004 or later, assuming a feasible and affordable alignment can be found.

These two interdependencies created by Sound Transit mean that completing construction of the Initial Segment is dependent upon the existence of a committed, feasible plan to fund and build an eight mile northward extension of light rail to the Northgate urban center.

(With regard to extending Central Link the remaining distance three miles southward to the eventual planned southern terminus located south of Sea-Tac Airport, the interdependency is less severe. Sound Transit would undoubtedly assert, and FTA would probably agree, that the Initial Segment's southern terminus at S 154th Street could serve as an interim terminal for "reaching the airport" that Sound Transit, and citizens of the region could live with for an indefinite period of time. It remains to be seen whether City of Tukwila, City of SeaTac, and Port of Seattle would agree.)

It is the northern extension of Link Light Rail that is most problematic and the focus in this report.

As originally conceived in 1996, before the abandonment of the original MOS-1 to University District, the construction of light rail to Northgate was planned as a two-stage process: first to University District, then to Northgate. The original commitments made in the 1996 Ten-Year Sound Move Plan approved by voters were distinct for the two project phases: to reach the University District in Phase One with existing authorized revenues, and to reach the Northgate Transit Center as soon as revenues could be secured to cover the costs. Political efforts to establish new local taxes to cover light rail construction costs from University District to Northgate began in Summer 2000 by King County councilmembers, but the efforts have not yet succeeded.

By November 2001, the two separate commitments of University Link and Northgate Link were melded into a combined project called North Link. Sound Transit began claiming despite the April 2001 OIG report that the revenues to cover the costs to build to the University District were achievable with some new financial tactics recommended by the Link Project Review Committee of distinguished citizens chaired by former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer. Revenues for building to Northgate could be raised separately through increased taxes after the 21 miles from University District to S 200th were completed, or at least were under construction.

In September 2001, the ST Board set in motion a process by Sound Transit staff that would specify an alignment northward from Convention Place Station to Northgate, a cost and funding plan, a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, another FFGA in 2005, and construction to begin in 2006, ahead of closing the DSTT for rail conversion. The environmental scoping report for North Link issued in January 2002 had the schedule as:


Complete the Draft Supplemental EIS by November 2002.


Board identification of the preferred alternative by January 2003.


Complete the Final SEIS by July 2003.


Board adoption of the preferred alignment by July 2003.

This schedule would have had the plan for Link North nailed down prior to the FFGA being executed in summer 2003. However, by March 2003, the completion of the Draft SEIS had slipped from November 2002 to at least Autumn 2003 because Sound Transit staff found that "additional work" was required to deal with a number of substantial issues:


I-5 structural, construction mitigation issues.


West Tunnel geo-technical issues.


University of Washington vibration and electromagnetic field mitigation issues.


Further third party discussions.


Peer review of route evaluation process.

Thus, the planning and confirming of a financial commitment for North Link is now scheduled to go to mid 2004, well beyond the planned execution date of the Initial Segment FFGA, even though this commitment is a Board-required pre-condition for a key task in the Initial Segment's construction, namely, closing the DSTT for two years to prepare it for use by light rail trains as well as buses.

Continuing to push ahead with this overlapping phasing of the Central Link Project's construction creates uncertainty and confusion about the Federal Government's funding commitment, because North Link itself will require a substantial FFGA in addition to the one now being considered for the Initial Segment. The record is clear that an extension of Link light rail from Convention Place to Northgate will require Federal New Starts funding beyond the first $500 million now being requested and reviewed by FTA for the Initial Segment, downtown Seattle to Tukwila.

However, at the moment, there is no alignment plan, no budget, and no funding source for the North Link extension of Initial Segment. The "additional work" items described above hint at some of the remaining issues to be determined.

For example, under a previous negotiated third party agreement, the University of Washington has veto rights over the route north until the University is satisfied that vibration and electromagnetic interference with the work of its laboratories caused by light rail construction and operations is fully understood and mitigated.

The extraordinary costs of tunneling under Capitol Hill, the cause of the abandonment of the first Link Light Rail FFGA for the old MOS-1 to University District, remain a key issue in the determination of the revised costs to go north. The Link Project Review Committee of distinguished local citizens that monitored and advised Sound Transit during 2001 as the Initial Segment was developed, recommended repeatedly to drop the Capitol Hill tunnel alignment as unaffordable. On the other hand, the Capitol Hill routes requiring the most funding are the routes that generate the most riders among the limited choices available to Sound Transit light planners. CETA estimates the full cost of Link North in the range $3.5 to $4.5 billion, which for eight miles would make this segment the most expensive light rail per mile in world history.

Aerial View of Convention Place Station with Alternative Alignments for North Link
Source: Sound Transit

The local funding share of the route north, even assuming an additional $500 million Federal New Starts match, is going to be challenging. At this writing, there is a very visible controversy in King County between light rail proponents who want to dedicate $1.3 billion to building North Link from a new source of local taxes, and those who believe that Sound Transit should raise additional light rail funding only from within its own authorized sources and levels.

Furthermore, returning to the second interdependency mentioned above, the construction details of the light rail right of way between Westlake Station and Convention Place cannot be determined without knowing the route north.

A statement in the February 2002 Initial Segment Environmental Assessment, Section 2.2, page 6 describes the problem: "If the project north of the Initial Segment changes from the current original project as a result of the North Link Supplemental EIS study, the design of Convention Place Station and the north end of the DSTT and Pine Street tail track could change. The final decision on the north alternative is scheduled for 2003, and any modifications to the Initial Segment design will be made prior to construction of the Pine Street tail track and DSTT retrofit in 2007. However, if the tail track is constructed and the original project route is not selected to the north, the tail track would have a limited life span. The Initial Segment northern terminus does not influence the choice of alternatives to the north. However, the uncertainty about the north alternative could affect KC Metro Transit's ability to make a decision about possible development of the Convention Place site."

The juxtaposition of two statements above, "the tail track would have a limited life span" and "the Initial Segment northern terminus does not influence the choice of alternatives to the north" is remarkable. It cleverly deflects attention from the obvious reverse point that the choice of alternatives to the north should influence the design of the Initial Segment. Sound Transit is admitting that they will not recognize this influence, despite the obvious potential for expending local and Federal resources for infrastructure with a "limited life span."

As issued by Sound Transit, the aerial photograph above with superimposed light rail alignments illustrates the interdependency of the Initial Segment design with the alignment choice for Link North. If the choice is either the red or light blue line going under Interstate 5 into Capitol Hill, the Pine Street stub tunnel has an orientation that sends the trains downward under the foundations of that highway. If the North Link alignment choice were the dark blue line that proceeds along the west side of I-5 in parallel with it, the geometry of the stub tunnel would need to be quite different.

In March 2003, the Sound Transit Staff Report for Motion number M2003-29 authorizing a Final Design Contract for the Pine Street Stub Tunnel noted, "This scope of work is on the critical path of the Central Link Project Master Schedule. Delay in Finance Committee approval could cause a delay in the schedule for construction of this segment."

This design contract was authorized by the Board in March 2003, and the dependency of this work on the Pine Street Stub Tunnel to the selection of the alignment of North Link suggests an important area of FTA diligence, and a possible justification of delaying the Initial Segment FFGA until the plan for North Link is defined.

CETA notes with approval the comment in the April 2001 OIG interim audit report that the 24 mile Central Link Light Rail project needs to be considered as a whole. As stated then, "The Project endorsed by the voters in 1996 includes completing a 21 mile system from North East 47th Street to South 200th Street and local funding was secured on that basis. Since FTA and Sound Transit intend to finance two additional segments that complete this 21 miles, plus three additional miles to Northgate, they should be up front about this and ensure the Project is justified and approved on that basis and that adequate Federal and local financing sources are identified."

The Seattle Times of April 28, 2003 quoted an apparently similar sentiment from Rep. Ernest Istook, Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees Federal Transit Administration spending. The article noted that Rep. Istook "wanted to know whether a $500 million grant for the first segment [of Central Link] would obligate the government to contribute more for extensions, and mentioned the possibility of '$1 billion' in total requests." The article further stated that "[Rep.] Istook pressed for cost estimates to reach the University District and Northgate and was told the full amount isn't known yet. 'It's important we look at it as a total project,' he said."

The idea of an FFGA for the Initial Segment Minimum Operational Segment (MOS) is that in the worst case of no further funding being available, the Initial Segment MOS would be completed and put into operation, and it would provide functional service. However, in the case of the present Initial Segment, Sound Transit has agreed not to close the DSTT for rail conversion – a key stage of Initial Segment construction – unless an extension of the MOS is ready to go. At the same time, Sound Transit is now proceeding to design the northernmost part of the Initial Segment under Pine Street when they need to know where the tracks go next, but don’t.

CETA therefore concludes that the 14 mile Initial Segment from CPS to S 154th is not by itself qualified for an FFGA and the start of construction. A qualified minimum operating segment must be a portion of the full 24 miles that could stand alone indefinitely. Northgate to Lander Street would probably qualify in this regard. The locally-funded Tacoma Link light rail is another example of a stand-alone segment with independent utility. Despite these available examples, Sound Transit has not yet designated a proper Minimum Operational Segment for Central Link.

Concerns About Moving Funds Between Subareas

Funding shortfalls for Central Link could come from suburban reaction to concerns over the strength of the firewalls between the revenues and costs of the five different subareas, as set by policy. The map below shows the five subareas. When Sound Transit's light rail plan was established in 1995-96, its funding was established as coming from the subareas of the Sound Transit district where the tracks would run. Fundamental policies now prevent three of the five Sound Transit subareas from permanently contributing any revenue to Central Link, but temporary contributions are now authorized via inter-subarea lending. However, this source of cash flow to Central Link could potentially become restricted.

The Link Initial Segment is funded with taxes from two of the five Sound Transit subareas. Spending patterns among the subareas are quite different, as are the tax collections in each. Inter-subarea lending/borrowing is carried out by Sound Transit financial managers to avoid borrowing money through selling bonds when Sound Transit as a whole has unused cash available in one subarea that is not immediately needed by that subarea for its own projects. So for example, the Pierce County subarea with its locally funded Sounder and Tacoma Link, is borrowing recently from other subareas that have projects not so far along. As tax collections for a subarea like Pierce eventually generate sufficient surplus cash above subarea project spending, the inter-subarea loans are intended to be repaid. The complex pattern of inter-subarea borrowing is revealed in the graphic illustration below, extracted from a year 2002 version of the Sound Transit Financial Plan. While the numbers may have changed recently, the basic principle remains the same, as illustrated. Lines above the zero level indicate subareas that are being loaned cash by other subareas. Lines below the zero level show areas that are the sources of the loans. As projects are completed, all subarea loans are intended to be repaid, and those point are programmed as future "get well" years where all lines cross the zero level, 2005 and 2009 per this version of the plan.

A funding problem for the Link Initial Segment Project in North King and South King may arrive in the period 2006-2009 when the East, Pierce and Snohomish Phase I capital programs (as authorized in the 1996 Sound Transit election) are completed. The end for these three regions will come most likely before the completion of Link Initial Segment in 2009, the main Phase I project for North King (Seattle) and South King (Tukwila and SeaTac). The expectation now is that after Phase I projects other than Central Link are completed in East, Pierce and Snohomish, cash would be loaned to North and South, which will still be in the midst of constructing the light rail Initial Segment.

Some leaders in the Eastside subarea object to the continuation of inter-subarea borrowing beyond the completion of their own Phase I projects approved in 1996. These leaders advocate that suburban subareas should be getting on with their presumed Phase II programs -- not holding Phase II projects in abeyance because Link Initial Segment needs cash. However, the Link Project Review Committee in 2001 and Sound Transit staff as well have proposed the option of extending the repayment of subarea loans to North and South King for another ten years (to 2019) in order to finance the construction of Initial Segment extensions.

If the program of inter-subarea loans from those cash-rich subareas not building light rail gets extended, the door is opened to North King and South King obtaining unsecured loans from the other three subareas that may not be possible to repay because of light rail cost overruns that outstrip the dedicated taxes and fares. Sound Transit staff deny that this is a concern, but some critics see the problem as inevitable. In a worst case scenario for the Link Initial Segment financial plan, if costs were to rise too much, too quickly in light rail construction in North King or South King, jurisdictions may demand changes in subarea boundaries, or complete withdrawal from the overall Sound Transit taxing district.

A mirror image of this problem of cost overruns with Link Initial Segment is the possibility of cost problems with other Sound Transit lines of business such as Sounder. Such overruns could restrict Sound Transit’s ability to move cash from the Pierce, Snohomish or East King subareas to the North and South King subareas that are building light rail.

Indeed, recent year-over-year forecasts for the budgeted lifetime cost through 2016 for the other capital programs underway in Sound Transit show a strong growth trend. For example, Sounder Commuter Rail capital cost estimates out to 2016 have gone up 29% over the three years 2001-03, and its O&M cost estimates have gone up 114%. Rider estimates have been reduced by 22%, since it is taking longer than originally planned to add more daily trains.

Regional Express Bus capital costs have been increased by 48% over the three years leading up to 2003. Most of that increase is due to "Possible Program Enhancements" that are not included in the Phase I adopted plans.

The complex nature of the inter-subarea borrowing issue is illustrated in the two charts at left derived from a Sound Transit financial plan that may have changed slightly. The East King chart shows its bonding for capital expenditures reaching a peak in 2005-2006, at the tail end of a period of capital spending. These bonds are apparently planned not only to cover East King’s capital projects, but also to generate enough additional cash to loan to other subareas and projects, particularly light rail in North King and South King, in 2007-2009. The combined North and South King chart shows their bonding ramping up as the light rail construction period is winding down. Under this version of the plan, in 2009 all inter-subarea loans would be repaid, although as noted already, the Link Project Review Committee in 2001 recommended extending the time period of inter-subarea lending out an additional ten years until 2019.

Legal or cash availability restrictions on subarea borrowing as a source of financing the Initial Segment could also come because of challenges from South King representatives that the costs in North King are delaying or risking completion of the light rail to South 200th Street past SeaTac Airport to the southern terminus promised in the 1996 Sound Move plan.

One legislative bill earnestly sought by elected leaders in the Eastside subarea is to put stronger, tighter legal restrictions on the use of tax dollars from one Sound Transit subarea for projects (like light rail) in another subarea. This was one of several bills passed in the Washington State Senate in the 2003 session, and only blocked on procedural grounds in the House after strong Sound Transit lobbying.

With inter-subarea borrowing as a programmed source of cash for the Link Initial Segment, cost overruns in other Sound Transit lines of business create a funding risk. These other overruns that affect the availability of surplus cash in the three subareas not building the Initial Segment would of course limit the ability of inter-subarea borrowing into North and South King to finance the Initial Segment.

In summary, the Initial Segment funding plan is risky for two reasons associated with inter-subarea borrowing. First, cost overruns anywhere within the Sound Transit array of construction projects across multiple lines of business in all subareas could lead to cash shortages that cascade to the detriment of Initial Segment cash requirements. Second, political leadership in subareas that lend money for Initial Segment could take steps to restrict the flexibility that Sound Transit seeks in its use of this financing tool.

Conclusions and Recommendations

CETA concludes from the evidence presented here that the execution of a Federal Full Funding Grant Agreement for the Central Link Initial Segment is not beneficial for the citizens of Washington State, nor in the best interests of the Federal Government. FTA did not complete the due diligence required in fulfilling its oversight role. FTA Region 10 in particular has been too eager to be a "partner" with Sound Transit in the construction of Link Light Rail Initial Segment.

Unless and until FTA assesses and responds appropriately to the punch list at the top of this page, we conclude that FTA's "partnership" with Sound Transit in the construction of Link Light Rail Initial Segment must be judged as overwhelming its statutory oversight role. FTA must be a steward of America's Federal public transportation resources, and make these resources available only to the most worthy mass transit projects around the country. Central Link Light Rail is not a project worthy of Federal support.

Note: Further documentation of all findings on this page are available from
Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, on the web at

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Last modified: February 07, 2011