Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Citizen Oversight Panel on Sound Transit Performance echoes criticism on costs in a separate Call for an Independent Audit

by John Niles

In early September of 2000, Sound Transit took broadside hits on the topic of cost overruns, as detailed in documents issued by two separate independent groups:
bulletA Call for an Independent Audit (September 6) by a group of over 70 elected officials, business people, and community activists. Some, but not all, of the signers expect that the audit would reveal cost problems that would undermine public support for the Link Light Rail project and justify radical changes or termination. Press coverage was extensive. Sound Transit immediately rejected the call for an independent audit, calling it unnecessary. The Board may have felt that the following report was criticism enough for one month.
bulletThe August 29 release of the mid-year 2000 performance report from the Sound Transit Citizen Oversight Panel. The Panel is made up of 15 citizens appointed by Sound Transit, and their report celebrates Sound Transit accomplishments, as well as offering criticism.

From the opening paragraphs of the Call for an Independent Audit

We, citizens and elected officials of the metropolitan Seattle area, support improved public transit, and other measures to relieve the congestion choking our communities. Many of us supported the Sound Transit plan approved by voters in 1996 as a critical step toward that goal. But alarming new developments in the Sound Transit Link light rail project have caused each of us to conclude that our region should consider putting this project on hold until it has survived closer scrutiny in the form of an independent audit.

This region needs unity in its drive for federal transit funding. A close look at Sound Transit's light rail program has us deeply concerned; we cannot remain silent in good conscience. Link light rail may have more in common with WPPSS than with our region's nationally heralded bus-transit system. Before we move forward, three questions need definitive answers: What is the real cost of Sound Transit's Link light rail? Who will pay for the currently projected and other cost overruns? Will Link, which in its current phase is a Seattle/North King County project, absorb funds from jurisdictions across our metropolitan area?

Because of our grave concerns, we call on the Sound Transit Board to reconsider signing a "full funding" grant agreement with the federal government. This $500-million agreement will bind the taxpayers of our region to complete the proposed Link light rail line from the University District to Lander Street. It will obligate us to finish this line as proposed, regardless of cost or alternatives. This binding agreement may force us to divert funds away from other important transportation projects, and require us to raise local taxes beyond what the voters approved for Sound Transit.

From the letter of transmittal of the mid-year 2000 Sound Transit performance report by the Chairman of the Citizen Oversight Panel:

Our major concern is that the costs of the program keep rising. Some of the cost increases are due to errors in estimating and a failure to anticipate changing conditions. But many other increases are due to changes in scope, authorized by the Board. Under the current financing plan, if these trends continue, Sound Transit will not be able to afford to do what was promised to the public and will lose its flexibility to deal with changes that may be required. Sound Transit is now fully extended in its financing capability unless additional revenues become available or unless the Board changes the financial policies.

The Citizen Oversight Panel calls upon the Board of Sound Transit and the partners and communities within the region to insist on budgetary discipline and to refrain from any further add-ons, improvements or enhancements that are not affordable and consistent with the original plan. We urge the Board to ensure that the rising costs are contained in the upcoming 2001 budget process. [Bold type as in the original.]

Read the whole document on the Sound Transit website.

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