The Sound Transit Board has unanimously approved moving forward with the first stages of planning for a third ballot measure, possibly as early as 2016. Sound Transit’s first ballot measure, approved in 1996 after failing in 1995, funded light rail from downtown to the airport. ST2, approved in 2008 after failing as part of a Roads and Transit package in 2007, is funding light rail from downtown through the UW to Northgate and Lynnwood, from downtown through Bellevue to Redmond, and from the airport south to Angle Lake.

Only a few months ago, the Board was thinking that a third ballot measure would not be possible until 2020 or possibly even 2024. But at a Board workshop in late November, there was enthusiastic interest in advancing that to a 2016 to 2020 planning horizon. Staff was asked to develop a strategy to make it possible to consider a 2016 vote.

The Board has now adopted a resolution approving the major steps in that process. It begins with a series of High Capacity Transit Corridor Studies in 2013-2014, assessing market demand and possible alignments in the corridors identified and funded for future study in ST2. Two of these planning efforts are already underway, Ballard to Downtown and south from 200th to Federal Way. Other corridors identified for consideration include Lynnwood to Everett; Renton to Tukwila, SeaTac and Burien; Downtown Seattle to West Seattle and Burien; South Bellevue to Issaquah; Redmond to Kirkland and the U-District; Ballard to the U-District; Kirkland to Bellevue and Issaquah; and I-405 Bus Rapid Transit. Other corridors could potentially be added, such as Federal Way to Tacoma, either by the Board or through public involvement and outreach.

The next stage will be to develop an updated Long-Range Plan and conduct public outreach. This stage will begin later in 2013 and also be completed in 2014. Finally, after completion of environmental review, the Board will have to select the corridors, funding plan, and other elements to advance to a ballot measure. Board deliberations would take place in 2015-2016.

The plan update will be built around leveraging the ST2 work, consistency with regional transportation plans, and coordination with state transportation work. The Board will have other decisions to make, such as how to integrate the Sound Transit bus and commuter rail programs. There are also issues of how to operate the current system most efficiently, such as whether to build infill stations and provide additional system access improvements. And several cities not currently included in the Sound Transit boundaries, such as Marysville and Arlington, have expressed possible interest in joining, which will require integrating services to them into the long-range plan.

All of the above tasks can be carried out by Sound Transit staff and Board under current authority. But there is one very big issue that will ultimately determine whether Sound Transit can go to the ballot in 2016: whether there will be additional funding sources that can be placed on the ballot. And this is dependent on action at the State level.

Sound Transit’s ST1 and ST2 programs have committed most of its current sales tax and other authorized revenue sources for the next couple of decades. If ST3 is to be a significant expansion, there will need to be additional revenue sources authorized by the Legislature. In some ways this is an easier sell in the Legislature than other tax proposals, because Sound Transit is committed to a public vote to approve these new taxes. However, it will be still be a challenge to persuade legislators who are not particularly supportive of transit to agree even to let Sound Transit ask the voters. Whether we can get that authorization in the 2013, 2014, or 2015 legislative sessions is the most important determinant of whether the Board will be able to go to a 2016 ballot.