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Thursday, January 11, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rta Ready To Unveil New Plan -- Rapid-Transit Proposal's Cost, Scope Downsized

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

A significantly scaled-back rapid-transit proposal to be made public tomorrow would cost half as much as the one voters rejected last spring and could be built in two-thirds the time.

Prepared by the Regional Transit Authority staff, the proposal calls for:

-- Far less light rail than in the earlier plan - 10 miles in Seattle, rather than 70 miles connecting King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

-- Completion of bus and car-pool lanes on interstates 5, 90 and 405, along with some new regional bus routes.

-- Commuter trains running from Seattle to Everett and Tacoma but not as far as Lakewood in Pierce County, as the rejected plan had called for.

Such a system could be built, according to the RTA staff, for $3.5 billion, about half the cost of the earlier plan and in about 10 years instead of 16.

The proposal has yet to go before elected officials from the three counties that make up the RTA board. The staff is referring to it only as a "hypothetical example" of a transit solution, a starting point for RTA board members as they now begin to put together the proposal voters ultimately will decide on in the fall.

Still, says RTA Executive Director Bob White, it would provide "a very fine transportation investment."

In March 1995, 53 percent of the voters rejected a $6.7 billion plan. Since then, the RTA staff was directed to produce a smaller model that would:

-- Focus on the most congested areas.

-- Combine different forms of transportation to create a high-capacity system.

-- Divide the region into five sub-areas - Snohomish County, Pierce County, South King County, the Eastside and Seattle-Shoreline - and ensure that each sub-area gets benefits in proportion to the amount of taxes it puts in.

-- Cut the cost and the building time.

The biggest change over last year's plan is what the new proposal wouldn't do.

Instead of 70 miles of light-rail trains connecting Seattle, Lynnwood, Tacoma and the Eastside, the plan would build 10 miles in Seattle.

The 10 miles likely would be either from Northgate to downtown Seattle or from the University District to Columbia City.

The plan also calls for a short light-rail line between downtown Tacoma and the Tacoma Dome.

Unlike last year's effort, the transit plan would include road improvements, such as completing high-occupancy-vehicle (car-pool and bus-only) lanes and building new ramps to get buses and car pools on and off the freeways quickly.

Like last year, the plan calls for a fleet of express buses and commuter rail - traditional railroad trains - along existing track from Tacoma to Everett, with stops in Puyallup, Sumner, Auburn, Kent, Tukwila, the Seattle industrial area, Ballard, Edmonds and Mukilteo.

Express buses connecting suburban areas likely would run every 15 minutes during peak periods and every 30 minutes other times. Light-rail trains would run a little more frequently; commuter-rail trains would run during rush hours only.

The draft is only beginning to be circulated but has drawn some positive reaction.

"It is a good point to start the discussion," said Mike Vaska, a Seattle attorney who heads the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce's Transportation Committee and is a key connection to the business community. "It would move significant numbers of people."

Vaska warned that any political efforts to increase the plan's size and price tag could cost the RTA its business support.

"They know this is their last shot," he said, "so they better make it a good one."

Steve Excell, a public-relations executive who led last year's opposition, said it wasn't clear whether a group of businesses calling itself the Crescent Coalition would oppose a new RTA proposal. He said he would "try to get down on paper what we think would work. The RTA at least deserves honest input."

But Excell said his group remains wary of any kind of rail and doesn't think the RTA answers the most important transportation questions facing the Seattle area: the so-called Mercer Mess or what would happen if earthquakes toppled the Alaskan Way Viaduct or the West Seattle Freeway.

The RTA's White said regardless of what it proposes, there would probably be opposition from businesses such as Renton-based Paccar, which has opposed tax increases, and from Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr., who opposed any tax increase for transit.

Martha Choe, a Seattle city councilwoman and RTA board member, said there is also a question about whether the proposal would do enough for Seattle. Choe would like the proposed light-rail line to go at least the entire distance from Northgate to Columbia City.

Choe said focusing so much attention on each sub-area - to make sure all five would get what they paid for - tended to take away from the idea of a total solution.

The RTA staff would charge Snohomish County, for example, for the full cost of commuter rail between Seattle and Everett, even though that train also would be of some benefit to Seattle.

By the same token, the full cost of light rail would be charged to Seattle, even though people from other areas would be able to ride it.

Taxes to finance the plan would be the same as those rejected last year: a sales-tax increase of 0.4 cents on a dollar and an increase in auto and truck licenses of 0.3 percent. The RTA estimates the cost to the average household would be about $100 a year. The tax would run for 10 years instead of the 16 originally proposed and apply only to people in the counties involved.

The plan differs from one recently offered by King County Executive Gary Locke in that it continues to include commuter-rail trains. Locke also called for more improvements in arterial roads, and the RTA staff does not. Other elements are similar.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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