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Tuesday, February 23, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light Rail To Northgate? Maybe Not For 12 Years -- Report Says Finances, Limited Taxing Authority Might Delay Expansion

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Building a light-rail line as far north as Northgate may be impossible for at least a dozen years, a new financial analysis prepared for Sound Transit indicates.

The report, being distributed this week to members of the Sound Transit board, likely will come as unwelcome news to residents of North Seattle, Shoreline and even Snohomish County, who hoped one day to be able to avoid Interstate 5 traffic and reach downtown Seattle on a high-speed rail system.

It comes just as the Sound Transit board is to decide on an alignment for the first phase of a light-rail system. That system is to run between the University District and the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport area by 2006.

A vote on a planned alignment is scheduled Thursday by the 18-member board.

But the financial analysis indicates that the light-rail system is so expensive - and the Seattle-North King County area will have used so much of its local taxing authority and ability to borrow money - that any extension of the system is unlikely without some new source of funding.

In addition, the Sound Transit financing plan says any federal money received through 2011 will be needed to pay for the first part of the system. So it would be 2012 before any new federal money would be available for a Northgate extension.

Sound Transit is primarily financed by local sales and motor-vehicle taxes. The federal government is expected to pay about one-third the cost of the light-rail program.

Bob White, the executive director, said the financing arrangement seemed like a safe one when the Sound Transit program was put together three years ago. White said the federal government had been paying 50 percent or more of the cost of light-rail programs in cities such as Portland and Los Angeles.

Federal role changes

"We adopted our assumptions on federal funding based on what the federal picture looked like at the time," White said. "We looked around the country and saw Los Angeles getting $100 million to $150 million a year. Even smaller systems like Portland were getting $80 million a year, for nine years."

But, said White, "we are seeing a different picture today. Systems are averaging about $70 million a year, and hardly anybody is getting 50 percent (of their project financed)."

Seattle's light-rail program is expected to cost about $1.9 billion (in 1995 dollars), or $2.35 billion by the time it is completed in 2006. That assumes the federal government will contribute about $70 million a year, plus $100 million a year for three peak years.

Federal payments would continue through 2011, or five years after the system is built. Sound Transit would have to get bridge financing to finish the construction of the first phase by 2006, then use the expected federal appropriations to pay off the bridge loan. That would be on top of 30-year bonds for construction costs, which will require continued local taxes.

With some local taxes going to pay the debt service on the bonds and federal money going to pay off the bridge loans, the amount of money coming in at current tax levels would not be enough to extend the line to Northgate, let alone Shoreline or Snohomish County, after the first part of the system was built.

Numbers may be surprising

The finance report is expected to come as something of a surprise to board members. Many had been planning to call for a new vote in the next three or four years to expand the transit system. Extension to Northgate, or even farther north, would be a primary component of any new plan.

The local taxes for Sound Transit were approved by voters in 1996 and include a half-cent increase in the local sales tax and 3 percent of the motor-vehicle excise tax (vehicle licenses.) The tax increases are permanent, but Sound Transit officials have said they would call for a second vote before expanding the system.

As part of the financing system, Sound Transit is divided into five "subareas:" Seattle-North King County, South King County, Pierce County, Snohomish County and the Eastside. Taxes collected in one subarea of Sound Transit can't be spent anywhere else.

The estimated cost of extending the light rail to Northgate would be $343 million (in 1995 dollars), or $453 million adjusted for inflation - about twice as much as would be available in taxes from the Seattle-North King County subarea.

Sound Transit officials are not yet ready to throw in the towel on Northgate.

Paul Miller, Sound Transit board chairman, noted that Sound Transit has the authority to seek a higher tax rate, although that would have to be approved by voters.

The state legislation that created the transit agency gives it the authority for a sales-tax surcharge of up to nine-tenths of a cent on each dollar spent, and a higher level of motor-vehicle taxes. So a vote on a second phase could call for higher taxes than those currently collected.

Miller also said an individual city, such as Seattle, could try to seek state legislation that would allow a higher tax rate within its boundaries. That isn't legal now, although bills have been introduced in the Legislature to allow that.

The present $3.9 billion program includes express-bus routes, commuter rail on existing tracks between Tacoma, Seattle and Everett, and a light-rail system running from the University District in Seattle to the Sea-Tac area.

The $3.9 billion is expressed in terms of 1995 values. If built on time and on-budget by 2006, the actual cost would be $5.1 billion.

Tunnels in some areas

It calls for trains in tunnels from the University District to downtown Seattle and use of the downtown bus tunnel. The light-rail trains would then travel on surface streets south to South Lander Street, east in a tunnel under Beacon Hill to South McClellan Street, and then on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. They would cross I-5 at the south end of Boeing Field, then travel along Pacific Highway South to Sea-Tac.

Efforts by Tukwila officials to add Southcenter to the route, and by Rainier Valley residents for a tunnel instead of surface rails, have virtually no chance of being added to the plan when the board votes on Thursday.

The board's decision is not final, however. It will be reviewed after a final environmental-impact statement is issued late in the fall. It also has to be approved by the Federal Transit Administration.

David Schaefer: 206-464-3141. E-mail: dschaefer@seattletimes.com

-------------------- Phase II tax funding --------------------

Local taxes available for 2006-2016, in million of dollars:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -.

North King-Seattle 210

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -.

Snohomish 628

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -.

East King 1,603

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -.

South King 484

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -.

Pierce 345

-----------------------------.

Total 3,270

-----------------------------.

Source: Sound Transit.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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