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Friday, December 4, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Big Plans For Light Rail -- Sound Transit Suggests 24-Mile Route From Seatac To Northgate

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Traffic hasn't gotten any better in the two years since voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties agreed to increase sales taxes and vehicle-license fees to finance a $3.9 billion transit system.

In fact, as the past month brought record rains and a return to darkness in peak commuting hours, more than one provocative talk-show host and his agitated callers asked, "Where's that train system we voted for?"

An environmental-study issued today by Sound Transit, the agency in charge of turning the 2-year-old mandate into a reality, may begin to answer the question. But for some people along the 24-mile route from Northgate to the SeaTac area, the answer isn't what they wanted to hear.

The details are in Sound Transit's staff recommendation for the proposed light-rail route, scheduled to be open in 2006. Unexpected proposals

Some of the proposals have been expected all along - a tunnel under Capitol Hill to connect downtown with the University District, for example. But others weren't anticipated at the time of the vote. Among them:

-- Trains would travel from the downtown Seattle bus tunnel to Rainier Valley with a stop near the new baseball and football stadiums, then reach Rainier Valley via a tunnel under Beacon Hill.

-- The tunnel station near the Washington State Convention and Trade Center would be abandoned.

-- There would be an elevated station and tracks near Northeast 65th Street and Eighth Avenue Northeast in the Roosevelt district.

-- Travel through Rainier Valley would be in the median of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

-- It would cost more to build the system, especially if enough federal money is appropriated to extend the line to Northgate.

The 1996 vote set the light-rail budget at a little over $1.7 billion (in 1995 dollars). The staff recommendation would cost $2.2 billion, mostly because of the extra cost to extend the line to Northgate. But the extra three miles would be built only if the extra money comes from the federal government. 1999 service

While the draft environmental-impact statement issued today deals only with the light-rail line, two other parts of the Sound Transit plan are expected to begin service in 1999: the first eight express bus routes in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, and commuter-rail service on existing track between Tacoma and Seattle via Puyallup and the Kent Valley.

Another nine express bus routes, commuter-rail service south to Lakewood in Pierce County and north to Everett, and more than 30 parking-lot and carpool-lane projects are expected after that. A short, 1.6-mile light-rail line is being built between downtown Tacoma and the Tacoma Dome.

The light-rail line through Seattle to SeaTac is to open in 2006. Nothing's final

Bob White, Sound Transit's executive director, said the plan must be flexible enough to respond to new information and circumstances. And the staff recommendation is far from final.

It is subject to extensive rules on timing and public comment contained in state and national environmental laws. Also, because federal money is involved, it must be analyzed by the Federal Transit Administration.

The draft environmental-impact statement, to be made public today, was to be printed in the federal register. By February, the Sound Transit board has to vote on the final version, and even that will be subject to further study and potential changes before another board vote on a final route in the fall. Federal approval, required for the receipt of federal money, is expected at the end of next year. Starting point

White said the staff recommendation will provide a starting point for the board. "Given the plethora of alternatives, we wanted to focus people's attention on the most-likely outcome," he said.

The board's evaluation of the potential routes from Northgate to SeaTac will be based on cost, number of potential riders, and environmental questions such as visual impact, noise, effect on the neighborhoods, business districts and wetlands.

When a $6.7 billion version of the bus-and-rail system was voted down as too expensive in 1995, one of the changes was to reduce the length of the light-rail line. Voters approved the smaller, $3.9 billion project the following year, but there was only enough money to build light rail as far north as the University District.

But Paul Bay, the light-rail division director, has said it is "crucial" to get to Northgate, which would add an estimated $343 million to the project.

For people connecting to the system from cars and buses, Bay said Northgate would provide a better transit hub than the already crowded University District. He also said it would be a waste of money to dig a tunnel to Northeast 45th Street, stop work, then go back and extend the tunnel later.

The staff recommendation calls for extending the downtown bus tunnel under Capitol Hill and the University District. It would emerge from the ground in the Roosevelt area and travel on elevated tracks near Northeast 65th Street and Eighth Avenue Northeast. It then would parallel Interstate 5 to Northgate. Opposition

The recommendation won't be popular in the area. Sound Transit's staff says about seven or eight homes on Eighth Avenue Northeast would be affected. Daniel Vaughn, who lives just off that street, already has begun a letter-writing campaign protesting the elevated tracks. But South Transit's staff notes that a tunnel in the area would add $30 million to $60 million to the cost.

Perhaps the biggest change from what was approved by voters involves the route south from downtown Seattle. Originally, the route was to emerge from the bus tunnel at Union Station and travel east to Rainier Avenue and then south through Rainier Valley.

Instead, Sound Transit is recommending the light-rail line go south on existing bus-only lanes past the new stadiums south of Pioneer Square, go east along South Lander Street, then in a tunnel under Beacon Hill to a station at South McClellan Street. It then would be on the surface in the median of Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

That route is also expected to be unpopular. New groups have emerged to ask for a tunnel through the valley rather than surface trains, and even the Environmental Protection Agency has questioned the fairness of tunneling under wealthy areas of Northeast Seattle while building surface rail in the lower-income Southeast.

Bay noted that tunneling under Beacon Hill is expensive - adding $100 million to the original plan - but avoids conflicts with other traffic and offers the chance to provide rail service to Beacon Hill later. The recommendation calls for beginning work on a Beacon Hill station. Actually, completing the station would await a vote to extend the system.

The route would go over Interstate 5 at the south end of Boeing Field, then travel on the surface along Pacific Highway South to South 152nd Street, then on elevated tracks to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The route is opposed by Tukwila officials, who want the rail line to serve Southcenter.

Connections at the airport are still "up in the air" because the Port of Seattle is deciding where to build a new passenger terminal. The south end of the line would be at South 200th Street.

If built on schedule, the line would open - in all areas at once - in 2006. Asking for more

But Sound Transit officials already are wondering when to ask voters to expand the system.

White, the agency's executive director, noted that it takes about four years from vote to the beginning on construction on a rail line. So if voters in the three-county area would want to expand the project by the time the present line is completed in 2006, they would have to vote by 2002.

David Schaefer's phone message number is 206-464-3141. His e-mail address is: dschaefer@seattletimes.com ------------------------------- Public hearings

Five public hearings on the recommended light-rail route are scheduled next month:

-- Jan. 13 at the Tukwila Community Center, 12424 42nd Ave. S., Tukwila.

-- Jan. 14. At the SeaTac City Council chambers, 17900 International Blvd., SeaTac.

-- Jan. 20 at the Lake Washington School District board room, 16250 N.E. 74th St., Redmond.

-- Jan. 26 at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus.

-- Jan. 28 at the Filipino Community Center, 5740 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S.

All will be from 6 to 9 p.m.

In addition, city of Seattle officials have scheduled a town-hall meeting on the plan from 7 to 9 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Filipino Community Center.

Written comments may be sent to Sound Transit at 1100 Second Ave., Suite 500, Seattle, WA 98101. Copies of the environmental statement are available at the Sound Transit offices and local city halls and libraries. Copies also can be requested from Sound Transit.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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