Sound Transit, in Seattle, received qualified praise for its success in light rail and bus service from the Citizen Oversight Panel (COP) in its last report of 1999.
The COP commended the agency on its success in three areas: the implementation of Regional Express bus service one year ahead of schedule, the conclusion of board negotiation on elements of the Link Light Rail system and the release of a Sounder Commuter Rail environmental impact statement that will allow the project to proceed.
Those achievements are, according to COP Chairman Reid Shockey, attributable to the Sound Transit Board and staff's resolve to be responsive to competing needs in the community while maintaining their focus on the agency's greater goal of regional integration.
"The panel warned everyone six months ago that, look, if you stay parochial on this thing then it's going to break down really quickly. And exactly the opposite happened," Shockey said.
"There was a coming together of elected officials and a commitment to stick with the vision, so they made the tough decisions. There was a desire and a professionalism there that caused them to sit around the table and get these things worked out," he said.
While negotiation was the key to success in the three areas cited by the COP, it also remains the greatest obstacle Sound Transit has to overcome. Significant issues persist with the University of Washington, the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad and other interested parties.
Shockey and Vice Chair Arlington Carter Jr., both emphasized the difficulty of working out such differences between legitimately concerned groups.
"On the one hand, they're indicating a real desire to get things worked out …but both sides are standing their ground pretty firmly and they've got to get it worked out by mid summer [in time to secure necessary federal funds for the project]," Shockey said.
Stymied discussions have not only delayed the execution of Sound Transit projects (Link Light Rail opening was postponed to September 2000 from December 1999) but have driven up costs. Sound Transit is now 12% over budget, and the COP has set monitoring those costs as one of its highest priorities.
A new financial control system, One World, will be implemented to better predict cost overruns and allow for timely response by the agency, but certain budget increases have been unavoidable. Extending the Link Light Rail terminus to Northgate was a necessary adjustment that came with a $400 million price tag.
Containing costs, says Shockey, requires new sources of revenue. That is especially pressing since the passing of Initiative 695, which cut Washington's Motor Vehicle Excise Tax. The initiative deprived transit agencies of $750 million in funds anticipated to, in part, support Sound Transit.
Uniting the region is a work in progress, but Shockey and the COP's report both indicate that Sound Transit is committed to realizing the ambitious plans laid out in its 1996 ballot initiative.
"Right down to the vending machine level, I think the whole idea is to get this entire system integrated," Shockey said.