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Thursday, June 3, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rising Costs For Light Rail May Require Further Cuts

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The price tag for building a light-rail line from Seattle to SeaTac may have gone up by hundreds of millions of dollars, raising the prospect that the system might have to be scaled back just months after Sound Transit decided not to extend the line to Northgate.

Paul Bay, Sound Transit's light-rail director, acknowledged yesterday that new elements added to the plan in February, combined with unanticipated increases in land prices, have driven the estimated cost above the project's $1.8 billion budget.

He would not say how high costs have risen, saying the agency is trying to get a firm handle on the numbers by the end of the week.

"At this point, we don't know how much of a problem we have," he said.

But David Hopkins, King County's regional-transit manager, says Sound Transit staff members have told him they estimate the plan is about $200 million over budget.

Bay said the cost has gone up in part because of about $100 million in additions by the Sound Transit board in February. For instance, the board approved a $50 million mitigation fund to soften the blow of an above-ground rail line in Rainier Valley. Some board members who represent Seattle said they would accept surface-level trains in Rainier Valley only with the fund for neighborhood improvements.

But Bay said some things have become more expensive, particularly land the agency must buy along the rail line and property needed for a maintenance plant.

"What has the real-estate market been doing? It's gone up higher than we estimated when we put the plan together in 1995," he said.

The Sound Transit board in February selected a preferred route from SeaTac to the University District. The plan will not be final until an environmental-impact statement is completed this fall.

But the rising costs mean Sound Transit will have to find cuts.

"Basically, we need to find a way to build the project on budget," Bay said. And that, he said, might mean not building one of the planned stations until well into the next century.

"It puts the onus on us to decide what we can do and what we can't do. It might be delaying a station's construction, building less initially than what you want to have in the long term," Bay said.

Sound Transit board members acknowledged they might have to examine scaling back the system.

"The equation is real simple. Less money means a shorter line," said Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan, D-Seattle.

To put the $200 million gap in perspective, eliminating a proposed Aloha Street station on Capitol Hill saved only $35 million because Sound Transit must lay tracks and build a tunnel under Capitol Hill anyway. But not extending the line to Northgate saved $350 million.

Sullivan and other board members didn't know which stations might end up on the chopping block, though, and stressed that they will look at other options first.

County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Newport Hills, said the need for cuts might give impetus to building the lone Capitol Hill station on Nagle Place instead of Broadway. McKenna said that is expected to save $40 million, but would dislocate more homes and businesses.

County Councilman Greg Nickels, D-Seattle, said the board would try to cut inefficiency in the system before exploring reductions in service. Another option might be cutting the $50 million for Rainier Valley, but Nickels said he'd oppose that.

"Once we've made a promise to a community, we need to keep it," he said.

Kery Murakami's phone message number is 206-464-2775. His e-mail address is: kmurakami@seattletimes.com

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

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