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Friday, January 12, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sound Transit votes to take $500 million

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit took the plunge yesterday and agreed to accept a half-billion dollars in federal money for its beleaguered light-rail project.

The decision ostensibly commits this region to building a light-rail system that's more than $1 billion over budget, three years behind schedule and increasingly under attack as a waste of money.

The Sound Transit board sat through two hours of testimony that largely attacked the project before it voted 14-1 to move ahead. Three board members were absent.

"We debate and debate and debate," said Ron Sims, a board member and the King County executive. "The result is congestion. It is time to breach the dam of indecision."

Board member Rob McKenna, the only person to vote no, raised a laundry list of doubts about the action, picking apart the plan for more than a half-hour.

"Today, we're being asked to approve a binding contract with the federal government," McKenna said. "I'm not comfortable with that."

Board member Richard McIver also raised doubts, saying he felt rushed into making a decision, but voted in favor anyway. "Basically, I have not seen a viable alternative," he said.

The board meeting at Union Station was packed with hundreds of people, including political heavyweights such as former governors Booth Gardner and John Spellman. Both oppose the project.

So many people attended that overflow seating was set up in the hall, where they could watch on television.

Inside the board room, the boisterous crowd applauded speakers and heckled board members. Two people held up a giant canvas banner that read "Unsound Transit, not on time, not on budget."

Though the board agreed to take the federal money, the Federal Transit Administration has not decided whether to hand it over. The agency is reviewing the project in light of the recent cost overruns. A decision is expected soon.

Dave Earling, chairman of the Sound Transit board, said the federal agency was waiting for the board to vote before awarding the money. "That's the clear signal we got," he said.

McKenna argued it was wrong to accept a contract the agency hasn't seen. "Having to commit now is astonishing," he said.

He pointed out that the board has 90 days to review the contract and said there was no need to rush. Earling said the agency needed to move now, before a new administration takes over in Washington.

The agency agreement commits Sound Transit to use the federal money to help build a seven-mile light-rail segment from Lander Street north to the University District starting in 2002.

Sound Transit plans to build another 14-mile stretch, starting in 2004, that will connect at Lander Street and go south to SeaTac. The agency will need another $931 million in federal money, which has not been requested, to build the second segment.

When completed in 2009, the project is expected to be 21 miles long and cost about $3.8 billion.

Some board members believe Sound Transit can take the federal money now and give it back if things don't work out, McKenna said. He doesn't believe it works that way. Taking the money, McKenna said, means the region has to build light rail.

Earling views it the same way. "It's a commitment to light rail, and the board needs to take that view," he said.

The board voted yesterday to spend the next six months looking for ways to cut costs. And it will consider extending a planned 4 1/2-mile tunnel to the surface, instead of ending it underground at Northeast 45th Street. Getting to the surface would cost more, but make the project easier to extend. Critics vowed not to disappear, despite yesterday's vote. Sane Transit, a group of business and civic leaders, including King County Councilwoman Maggi Fimia and Gardner, renewed its call for a vote on the project by the public.

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