SOUND Transit provides Link light rail, Sounder commuter rail and bus services in the Puget Sound area of Washington state from Everett in the north through Seattle to Tacoma and Lakewood in the south. Voters in the area have approved more than $US 70bn in transit investments between 2008 and 2016 which is enabling Sound Transit to expand its rail networks.
Mr Peter Rogoff, Sound Transit’s CEO, explains the background to this huge vote of confidence in rail investment. “The region is far behind where it should be now because of a failure to get funding in the past. Congestion has doubled in the last five years which has affected reliability and the performance of the bus network. Even our high-occupancy lanes are filling up and not performing as they should.”
The population of Washington state is currently 7.4 million and is expected to grow by one million during the next 10 years and to top 9 million by 2040. According to Rogoff, 80% of the growth will be in Sound Transit’s catchment district which currently has a population of around 3.8 million. “Our goal is to go from 33 million riders in 2014 to 200 million by 2040,” he says.
These factors help to explain why Puget Sound voters have been willing to back investment in public transport. “We go directly to the voters to ask them to adopt the system plan and to increase their taxes,” Rogoff continues. “One year ago voters passed by a majority of 100,000 the proposition to increase their property and motor vehicle taxes. The measure raised $US 54bn, all of it for transit. Of this $US 28bn is for capital investment and the rest for maintenance, operation and debt service. The proposition will add 100km of light rail to expand the network to 186.6km, effectively doubling the size of the network.”
While the proposition has “the force of the law,” as Rogoff put it, Sound Transit may have to slow the rate at which it builds the extensions. “We are secure in terms of local funding, but the plan assumes some continuing modest federal funding. But now President Trump is proposing to cut off transit funding for projects which have been planned for years.”
Sound Transit is in the final stage of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) process for securing the $US 1.17bn Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA), under the Capital Investment Grant Programme, also known as the New Starts programme, for the 13.7km Northgate - Lynnwood light rail extension, on which work is due to start this year. Engineering approval by the FTA last year enabled Sound Transit to move forward with final design work on the extension. This gave the project its second-highest possible rating in the competitive grant process and committed federal funding.
In fiscal 2017, the US Congress appropriated $US 100m for the Lynnwood extension, and the FFGA was scheduled to be executed in 2018. However, the current administration has proposed eliminating funding for future FFGAs across the country, including the agreement for the Lynnwood link.
“We have had a lot of meetings in Washington DC and I think we are making progress, but we were offended that funding will continue for Los Angeles, for example, but not us,” Rogoff says. “Different pockets of the administration are speaking with different voices.”
Sound Transit is mid-way through an evaluation of whether public-private partnerships (PPP) could be used for some elements of the expansion plan. “PPPs would make it someone else’s burden rather than ours,” Rogoff says. “We already have access to portable credit and we have the highest credit rating of any US transit agency, and we have a master credit agreement with the US Department of Transportation.”
Rogoff also faces another financial challenge. “A lot of public agencies in the Pacific Northwest are facing increasing labour, materials and rights-of-way costs. We have a ridiculously hot real estate market here at the moment, so we are carefully monitoring what we can afford. Just as the agency benefited from a weaker market in the past with lower construction costs, we now have fewer companies bidding for contracts and face much higher costs.”
In the meantime construction of the 6.9km light rail extension from University of Washington north to Northgate is making good progress. “This project is $US 15m under budget and the tunnels have been completed, so the risky part of the project is complete,” Rogoff says. “We are now building the stations and it will open in the fall of 2021.”
Last summer, work started on the 22.5km East Link project which involves building a light rail line from International District/Chinatown, on the existing north-south line, via Mercer Island and Bellevue to the Redmond Technology Centre in the heart of the Microsoft campus. It includes installing tracks in the centre of an existing floating road bridge across Lake Washington and adding new road lanes on each side. “It took a lot of very extensive technical research to make it work,” Rogoff says. “The first stage is post-tensioning the bridge to the pontoons to make it less free flowing, and then we need to cope with the dynamic movement of the track.”
The East Link is due to open in 2023, and Rogoff says funding is now in place to extend the line into the heart of Redmond.
This year will see more construction activity. “We will continue to make progress with the Northgate extension and hope to break ground and start construction of the Lynnwood extension,” Rogoff says. “We are also planning the Ballard to West Seattle line with a new tunnel under Seattle, and we will start planning for the line to Federal Way.”
The Federal Way extension will extend the light rail system south from Angle Lake in SeaTac to Des Moines, Kent, and Federal Way in King County. The 12.5km alignment will generally follow the Interstate 5 highway.
Sound Transit is almost obliged to adopt the latest technology for the operation of its rail network, as Rogoff explains. “Seattle is the tech capital of the United States with Microsoft, Amazon and Google based here, so expectations are very high.”
Sound Transit’s Orca smart card is being developed to take it to the next generation with a more open architecture and additional functionality, while the Orca Lift card provides discounted fares for lower-income people.
“There is almost no limit to what digital technology can provide,” Rogoff says. “We could put fewer buses on the streets and trains on the tracks if passengers knew exactly when the next bus or train will arrive through an app on their phone.”
Sound Transit is also environmentally conscious and plans to become carbon neutral by 2030. “We already have a lot of hydroelectric power in the Pacific Northwest, but transport is still the number one generator of greenhouse gases, so we take this very seriously,” Rogoff explains. In April 2017, Sound Transit signed a 10-year agreement with Puget Sound Energy to power the entire light rail network with 100% clean energy from wind power, starting in 2019.
The agreement will help Sound Transit to lower its exposure to future utility price increases, potentially reduce long-term operating costs, and stabilise 42% of its electricity charges over the duration of the contract.
“We have sold around $US 500m of green bonds which puts us ahead of any other agency. We are well on our way to meet our goals,” Rogoff says.
Profile: Peter Rogoff
PETER Rogoff, who has a master of business administration degree from Georgetown University, served for 22 years on the staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee. In May 2009, Rogoff was appointed Federal Transit administrator for a five-year term. In July 2014 he was named under secretary of transportation for policy in the US Department of Transportation. Rogoff joined Sound Transit as CEO in January 2016.