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Friday, November 17, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Price puts tunnel on hold

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sound Transit put the light-rail tunnel on hold yesterday, saying the current plan is just too expensive.

The lowest estimate for digging the 4 1/2-mile tunnel from downtown to the University District came in at $728 million, not including contingency money. That's far more than the $557 million the agency had budgeted for the tunnel.

"I do not believe we can complete a successful negotiation . . . to create a fair (contract) at an acceptable price," said Bob White, Sound Transit's executive director.

The Sound Transit board yesterday voted to:

Suspend negotiations with the tunnel contractor, Modern Transit Constructors, until Dec. 14. The agency did not fault the contractor.

Have staff members look at other, more affordable alternatives and come up with an explanation of why the original estimate was so far off.

Get a new estimate of how much it would cost to complete the entire light-rail system, from SeaTac to the University District. Voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties approved a plan in 1996 to build a comprehensive $3.9 billion transit system including buses, commuter trains and light rail.

The board said it no longer needed former Mayor Norm Rice to create an independent panel to review the tunnel contract. Sound Transit had recently asked Rice to create the panel after light-rail opponents questioned the agency's finances.

The board made the announcements after an hourlong closed session. There were plenty of glum faces among members of the panel when the audience in the boardroom was told the news.

"The news disappoints all of us and clearly puts us at a pivotal juncture in the process of creating a regional transit system," said Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, a transit-board member. "We cannot support a project we can't afford."

Greg Nickels, vice chairman of the board and a Metropolitan King County Council member, said the setback should not stop Sound Transit from moving ahead.

"The time is now for us to step up," he said. "Failure is not an option."

Emory Bundy, a leading critic of light rail, approved of the board's action yesterday but said he now wants more information about the cost of the entire project.

"My belief is that every component is over budget," he said.

It's not clear yet how the tunnel issue will affect the agency's ability to complete its planned 21-mile light-rail system.

Sound Transit plans to study its options during the next few weeks and focus on alternatives considered earlier in the project's environmental-impact statement. Those options still include some tunneling.

The board yesterday specified the Sound Transit staff should consider crossing Portage Bay with a bridge instead of a tunnel - an option contained in the environmental-impact statement.

Focusing on options that environmental studies have already addressed would speed the process and make it more likely that the federal government would still give the agency $500 million to help build the light-rail system, agency officials said.

Congress recently finished its 60-day review of the federal-grant agreement without raising questions, according to Sound Transit. The agreement is now back with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), which had been expected to approve it soon and send it to Sound Transit for review.

That is now on hold until the agency decides how to proceed.

King County Executive Ron Sims, a member of the Sound Transit board, said he had been in touch with the FTA and was told it was still possible to get the money, especially if the agency stuck with alternatives contained in the environmental-impact statement.

The $500 million agreement "is not compromised," Sims said.

A spokeswoman for the FTA yesterday said the agency might have to renegotiate its funding agreement with Sound Transit if the "scope" of the rail project changes.

"If they changed it from one thing to another, I think they would have to renegotiate," spokeswoman Mary Knapp said.

White said it all depends on how much the project is changed. For example, he said, Sound Transit could not come up with a route that sticks completely to the surface and keep the existing federal agreement.

Documents released by Sound Transit yesterday show the original Modern Transit estimate for digging the tunnel was $844 million. The firm was asked to consider alternative designs for the tunnel that could lower the cost.

"A week ago I told Modern Transit that unless they came in with a number lower than $650 million this Monday, that we didn't have anything to talk about," White said. "It's not a judgment that we want to pay that much or could afford to pay that much, but you have to have a number."

The lowest number the contractor reached was $728 million, he said.

White said there was not a specific reason the cost was over what the agency budgeted.

"It really is an accumulation of decisions that appeared reasonable at the time, but when you add them all up, increased the cost of the project," he said.

Factors that helped drive up the cost include tests that found some of the soils the tunnel would go through are trickier than anticipated, plus the current market for tunnel contractors is not very competitive, White said.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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