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Friday, January 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dunn backs rail-project review

Seattle Times staff reporter

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More than one powerful Republican in Congress has doubts about Sound Transit's light-rail project.

Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, yesterday said she wanted a lot of questions answered before deciding whether to support the $3.8 billion venture. Dunn, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, is the ranking Republican in Washington's delegation and served as chairwoman for George W. Bush's presidential campaign here.

Her comments came a day after U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, the new chairman of the Appropriations transportation subcommittee, called for $500 million in federal money sought by Sound Transit to be put on hold. He also wants the U.S. Office of the Inspector General to review the light-rail project.

Dunn says Rogers is doing what's right.

"I think Hal's request for the inspector-general audit is a good thing," Dunn said. "I continue to have concerns. They (Sound Transit officials) have to justify their position, why are they over budget, why is it taking them three additional years to complete this project."

Sound Transit revealed last month that the 21-mile rail project is $1 billion over budget and would not be done until 2009.

The inspector general's report is key now, Dunn said. "One of my concerns is that there has not been an independent audit. This will serve that purpose," she said.

"The project speaks for itself. If it is in good shape, it can move ahead. If it is not, then I will have concerns with it, and that relates directly to my support during the appropriations hearings."

Dunn said it didn't matter to her if the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) went ahead this week and awarded Sound Transit the $500 million "full-funding grant agreement." Sound Transit officials say they have been assured the project will be approved.

The agreement essentially is a promise that the Federal Transit Administration will ask Congress for annual installments through 2006. Sound Transit has already been advanced $91 million in federal money during the past three years. The agreement promises to pay out an additional $409 million.

"That doesn't mean they are going to get funding for the project," Dunn said. "It's just sort of a sign-off. The funding comes through the appropriations cycle. They could sign that agreement and get no dollars out of appropriations."

That's especially true if Rogers doesn't sign off on the project, she said.

"I think the FTA would be better served by listening to Hal Rogers because that is where the power is on this project. If he decides he does not want to fund Sound Transit, Sound Transit is not going to be funded," Dunn said.

Sound Transit officials yesterday downplayed their concerns about the snag in Congress.

"We're eager to work with the chairman (Rogers) and staff to address the concerns he's raised," Dave Earling, chairman of the Sound Transit board, said yesterday, reading from a prepared statement during an interview.

But some board members clearly are troubled by recent events.

Jim White, a board member and mayor of Kent, worried about what would happen if the Federal Transit Administration awarded Sound Transit the money.

"What type of political climate would be created if they do it over the chair's (objections)," he said during a meeting of the Sound Transit finance committee yesterday. "It causes me some real discomfort if we create a situation that comes back to bite us."

Rob McKenna, a board member and critic of light rail, also raised questions about Sound Transit's lobbying firm in Washington.

"The fact is they screwed up by not alerting us to the depth of Rogers' concerns," he said.

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