Federal money for Lynnwood light-rail extension is locked in

Under the Trump administration, the $1.17 billion in federal money had been in jeopardy.

By:  Jerry Cornfield
Source: The Everett Herald

LYNNWOOD — Sound Transit directors on Thursday celebrated the securing of nearly $1.2 billion in federal funding to bring light rail service into Snohomish County. They then approved the first significant construction contract for the project.

The Federal Transit Administration completed a full funding grant agreement with the regional transit authority to provide a pivotal source of dollars for the planned Lynnwood Link extension of light rail service from Northgate in Seattle to Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood.

Under the agreement, wrapped up Wednesday and announced early Thursday, the federal agency will provide up to $1.17 billion subject to appropriations by Congress. Sound Transit is in line to receive $200 million that Congress has already approved.

Within hours of the federal agency’s announcement, the Sound Transit Board of Directors unanimously approved an $88.2 million contract for tasks such as relocating utilities, removing trees, demolishing residential structures, and tearing down existing noise walls and erecting temporary noise barriers. Work will start early next year with major visible activities getting underway in the spring.

“We are very excited about this,” said Dave Somers, the Snohomish County executive and chairman of the board.

Light rail now reaches Husky Stadium in Seattle with service on pace to arrive at Northgate Mall in 2021. Lynnwood Link light rail service is scheduled to begin in July 2024, according to Sound Transit.

As planned, trains will travel from Northgate to Lynnwood with stops in Shoreline, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood. Once completed, commuters can expect a 27-minute ride to downtown Seattle and an hour-long ride to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, according to Sound Transit.

The $1.17 billion federal grant will cover roughly a third of the $3.26 billion needed for the 8.5-mile extension. The amount includes financing costs, rail car purchases and some maintenance expenses.

The full funding grant agreement had been in the works since 2013 but had been in doubt the past two years because President Donald Trump didn’t include funding for it in his mass transit agency budget.

Uncertainty surrounding how much federal money would be available pushed Sound Transit leaders to reset the start date for Lynnwood service from 2023 to 2024. Officials also have blamed cost increases on the slower timeline.

Last month, the federal agency forwarded the full funding grant agreement to Congress for its required 30-day review. That period ended Wednesday.

Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said the persistence of Washington’s congressional delegation was critical.

“This milestone really was the culmination of years of work,” he told directors Thursday.

Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, along with Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen had pushed, pestered and prodded administration officials for the past two years to sign the agreement and ensure it is funded. They led efforts to lock in the $200 million that will soon flow to Sound Transit.

Murray serves on the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee. On several occasions she publicly questioned Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao about the administration’s commitment.

In a news release, Murray thanked Chao and federal transit officials “for working with us to move this vital project forward.”

“This major federal investment is an incredible gift to Puget Sound to help address congestion on our roads and connect residents to jobs, schools, and businesses in King and Snohomish counties,” she said.

Cantwell, in a statement, said, “Finalizing this agreement means we can put shovels in the ground in early 2019.”

Larsen, who serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said they were “explaining it over and over again” to administration officials that residents had agreed to pay the lion’s share of the project costs and counted on the federal government being a partner.

In addition to this grant, the Federal Transit Administration has approved a separate $658 million loan to Sound Transit for the Lynnwood project.

Meanwhile, Sound Transit will soon be seeking a full funding grant agreement for the Federal Way Link extension.

“I don’t expect it to be this difficult in the future,” Larsen said.