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Friday, March 9, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Its own watchdog bites Sound Transit; panel fears light-rail budget unrealistic

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit's citizens-oversight panel yesterday criticized the agency's $3.8 billion light-rail budget as "highly aggressive and optimistic."

In its year-end report, the panel also said it is worried Sound Transit could repeat past mistakes, such as underestimating costs to dig a tunnel and buy right of way.

Those errors led the agency in December to reveal the project is $1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule.

The 15-member committee, appointed by the Sound Transit board to serve as an in-house watchdog, has become increasingly critical of the agency, warning the board about cost overruns that threatened the project.

"All we can do is keep telling them to be careful," said Reid Shockey, panel chairman.

The panel said it is particularly worried about Sound Transit's ability to get several hundred million dollars from the federal government to help build the 21-mile light-rail line. The group called that a risky assumption.

Sound Transit earlier this year signed an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration that is expected to provide $500 million to help build a seven-mile light-rail segment between South Lander Street in South Seattle and the University District starting in 2002.

However, the agency needs another $931 million in federal money to build an additional 14-mile stretch, starting in 2004, between South Lander Street and SeaTac.

Shockey said the panel wants Sound Transit to come up with contingency plans in case all the federal money doesn't come through.

Joni Earl, Sound Transit's acting executive director, said she believes the agency has a defendable plan to get federal money. "We didn't think it was pie in the sky."

Doubts raised in its latest report are not new. Light-rail critics and even board members have made similar comments.

But it is significant the agency's own oversight panel has joined the chorus, said Rob McKenna, a Sound Transit board member and light-rail critic.

"It's impossible (for the board) to dismiss comments from the oversight panel," McKenna said.

The oversight panel also criticized Sound Transit's management for "repeated failures to control budgets and schedules."

And it recommended that board members get more deeply involved in the details of the project and demand more information from Sound Transit staff.

"The board must ... be vigilant in demanding full information of staff," the report said. "The board ... has often accepted staff recommendations without full review of other options."

Greg Nickels, chairman of Sound Transit's finance committee, said he shares the oversight panel's doubts about the budget.

"I have real questions about the federal money" and other assumptions in the plan, Nickels said.

Shockey said the panel's criticism "is not an indictment of light rail, or a call to abandon that program. Those who wish for (light rail) to go away will not find comfort in this report."

The panel also commended Sound Transit for its bus and commuter-rail services and noted the agency is taking steps to get a handle on management problems.

Andrew Garber can be reached at 206-464-2595, or agarber@seattletimes.com.

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