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Thursday, January 18, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Congressman wants to delay light-rail money

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The half-billion dollars promised to Sound Transit for its light-rail project has run into trouble in the U.S. House.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, chairman of the Appropriations transportation subcommittee, wants the money put on hold until questions about the project are answered.

Rogers sent a letter to Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater on Tuesday saying his panel cannot approve the money. Transportation projects have to be cleared by his subcommittee before going to the full Appropriations Committee.

Rogers also called for a review by the Office of the Inspector General.

Sound Transit has spent years trying to get a federal "full-funding grant agreement" worth $500 million. Approval of the contract, which the agency wants to help pay for its $3.8 billion light-rail project, seemed almost certain until now.

"Given the substantial cost increases on this project since the original submission of the full-funding grant agreement ... at this time the committee cannot approve the (agreement)," Rogers wrote.

The committee will not take action until it gets more information about the project from the inspector general, he wrote. A report could be delivered by March.

It's not clear whether the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), part of the Department of Transportation, will defer to Rogers.

Sound Transit expects the money to be approved this week anyway, said Sheila Dezarn, the agency's government-relations manager. "It is our understanding the Federal Transit Administration intends to award this agreement to us, even with this letter (from Rogers)," she said.

The agency apparently doesn't need committee approval, she said.

FTA officials have not returned repeated phone calls during the past week. Dave Earling, chairman of the Sound Transit board, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Rogers sent a letter to the Transportation Department last week asking the agency to hold off approving agreements for projects in Seattle, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Minneapolis pending further review, said Dan DuBray, a spokesman for Rogers.

Since then, questions have been cleared up on all of the projects except Seattle's, he said. "It was the one for which serious questions remain."

Rogers followed up with the second letter to Slater, a Clinton appointee, on Tuesday.

"The committee is keenly aware of dissent at the community level (in Seattle)," DuBray said. Rogers "has asked the inspector general to review the ... details of this large transportation investment. This will be critical to making an informed decision."

DuBray said Rogers' subcommittee is not rejecting the Seattle project. It just wants more time to make a decision.

"Until we have the answers to the important questions of how the project will move forward and how much it will cost and how it will be paid for, Chairman Rogers believes it would be premature to execute the agreement," DuBray said.

Congress completed a 60-day review of the $500 million Sound Transit agreement in November without raising questions. But that was before the agency revealed the project was $1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule. Sound Transit board members also have questioned the agency's ability to cover the new costs.

The agreement commits Sound Transit to use the federal money to help build a seven-mile light-rail segment between South Lander Street in South Seattle and the University District in North Seattle starting in 2002. Sound Transit plans to build an additional 14-mile stretch, starting in 2004, between South Lander Street and SeaTac. The agency would need an additional $931 million in federal money, which has not been requested, to build the second segment. When completed in 2009, the project would be 21 miles long.

If the FTA approves the agreement despite Rogers' objections, that could cause big problems for Sound Transit later, said Kenneth Orski, a transportation consultant who worked for the Transportation Department in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Even with a federal agreement in hand, Sound Transit will have to go to Congress each year and lobby for the money that was promised.

"If the Appropriations Committee is opposed to the project, the chances of (it) being funded and going ahead are extremely slim," said Orski, a member of the transportation transition team for the incoming Bush administration.

Dezarn downplayed the prospect of trouble getting money each year from Congress. "I think it just makes it a little more challenging than we would have liked," she said.

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