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Sunday, December 17, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light rail: a lot of money and a lot of questions

Seattle Times staff

After months of speculation about the state of its finances, Sound Transit disclosed last week that its light-rail line would cost a billion dollars more than it had previously figured.

Puget Sound commuters could have to wait until fall 2009--three years longer than planned--for the light-rail link between SeaTac and the University District. And just to cover cost overruns, residents would have to pay transit taxes for the three years they couldn't use it. Opponents ridiculed the project as "WPPSS on Wheels," after the failed nuclear-power venture of the 1970s and '80s that resulted in a $2 billion public-bond default. Sound Transit staff apologized and promised that this budget was finally realistic.

Below are some commonly asked questions about the light-rail plan.

Q: How much trouble is light rail in? With $1.3 billion in projected cost overruns disclosed last week and opposition on so many fronts, is the Sound Transit light-rail plan on the verge of collapse?

A: Probably not. The only people who can pull the plug on light rail are Sound Transit board members. Despite the turmoil of the past month, the staunchest light-rail supporters on the board--Chairman Dave Earling, King County Executive Ron Sims, Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison and County Councilman Greg Nickels--are not wavering, at least not publicly.

County Councilman Rob McKenna, a board member who opposes light rail, acknowledges that the votes do not exist to delay the project.

However, in a telling move, the board last week asked its Washington lobbyist whether it could accept a $500 million federal light-rail grant but then back out later if more problems emerge. The answer was yes, as long as the agency returns the federal money.

Q: Should Sound Transit board members worry about voter anger over the cost increases?

A: Light-rail opponents say they're counting on a groundswell of voter anger over the financial troubles to raise the pressure level on the elected Sound Transit board members to change their minds and abandon light rail.

Many people are angry with Sound Transit: Rainier Valley residents, downtown and Capitol Hill businesses, North End neighborhoods that want light rail extended to Northgate. But two recent polls--one commissioned by Sound Transit and one by Gov. Gary Locke's transportation commission--found overwhelming support for mass transit in the Seattle metro area. Two-thirds of respondents in Sound Transit's poll agreed with the statement, "It's important for the light-rail system to be done right, even if it costs more."

The poll didn't ask them how much more.

Q: When does light rail bust the budget?

A: Last week the cost for the 21-mile line was estimated at $3.6 billion. A year ago the estimate was $2.3 billion. But there is no set budget for the project. Voters from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties endorsed taxes to pay for Sound Transit in 1996, but the ballot measure did not set a spending limit for light rail. That was intentional, because no one knew exactly how much it would cost.

Q: Is it possible that the project cannot be built within the existing financing mechanism?

A: Sound Transit is financed through supplemental sales and vehicle taxes, which pay for express buses, regional commuter trains and mass-transit-related highway improvements. To pay the additional $1.2 billion, the Sound Transit staff last week proposed extending the taxes an extra three years, from 2006 through 2009. That means claiming tax revenue that many people were hoping would be available to pay for phase two of the project.

The latest Sound Transit budget also assumes $200 million more from the federal government in additional federal money beyond the $500 million it was already counting on. There is no guarantee Uncle Sam will come up with an extra $200 million.

Q: Why is Sound Transit in such a hurry? They announce massive overruns, and then they want to make a final decision on the project by Jan. 11.

A: Sound Transit officials say the January deadline is to sign an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration for a $500 million grant for light rail from downtown Seattle to the University District. Opponents say Sound Transit is using the federal-grant deadline as an excuse to rush the process when light-rail opposition seems to be peaking.

Q: Why not forget the grant and take time to study all the options again?

A: Sound Transit opponents, including Sane Transit, a group that includes government and business leaders make this argument. Former Gov. Booth Gardner, a Sane Transit member, argues that Sound Transit should forget the grant deadline and consider less-expensive transit plans, such as expanded bus systems or a monorail.

Sound Transit argues that it took years of lobbying and support from Washington's congressional delegation to get the money and to lose the grant would be tantamount to giving up on the project.

Q: If Sound Transit was off by $1 billion before, how accurate are the latest figures?

A: The Sound Transit staff members insist the budget released last week is realistic. They say they failed to total everything up and look at the bottom line, and they promise no more surprises. The new budget has $400 million in contingency funds to cover unforeseen problems, they said.

Q: Why doesn't Sound Transit consider cheaper alternatives like buses and monorail? In the past year light-rail opponents have proposed using the Sound Transit money to pay for 1,000 free commuter buses. They've also proposed a system of monorail lines that would run along freeways. Why won't Sound Transit talk about these possibilities?

A: The answer lies in the way Sound Transit was born. It was created by the voters in a ballot measure that was specific about the kind of technology it should use. The plan specified express buses, commuter trains and a core light-rail line from SeaTac to the University District.

Sound Transit board members say even if other technologies were worth examining, their job is not to study them, that they are bound by what voters in three counties approved in 1996. The only way they could back out of light rail, board chairman Earling said, would be if the system could not be built for technical or financial reasons.

Sound Transit says most other technologies were studied in the 1980s and early '90s. Light rail is expensive but moves far more people than any other technology.

Opponents disagree, saying a monorail never was seriously considered and that the free-bus plan could take many more cars off highways a lot less expensively than building tunnels. For the agency to seriously consider other technologies could require bringing another ballot measure to the voters.

INFORMATION

Light-rail open house

Two more "open houses" are scheduled for supporters and opponents to ask questions of the Sound Transit staff and speak their minds: 4 to 8 p.m. Jan. 8 and 9 in Sound Transit's Union Station headquarters, 401 S. Jackson St. The Sound Transit board is to vote Jan. 11 on an agreement with the federal government to build light rail.

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

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