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Saturday, March 10, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light rail labeled `problem' project

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A key congressional committee wants Sound Transit to testify about a "problem" project: the agency's $3.8 billion light-rail program.

"I don't think I would characterize it as a good thing," said Dan DuBray, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky. Rogers is chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee holding the March 29 hearing.

Another thing that may not be good for Sound Transit - comments made by the U.S. Inspector General Kenneth Mead on Thursday.

Mead told Rogers' committee that he had some concerns about the $500 million agreement the Federal Transit Administration signed with Sound Transit in January, because of issues that remained at the time, said David Barnes, a spokesman for Mead. He would not elaborate.

Rogers asked Mead's office in January to review the light-rail program and report back. Inspector General auditors have visited Sound Transit in recent weeks to pick up documents and interview staff. A formal report is expected in June.

Rogers' subcommittee will focus on two transit projects during its hearing: Sound Transit's light-rail venture and a project in Puerto Rico, DuBray said.

Opponents of the light-rail project will be invited to testify, as well as Sound Transit staff. "It's an opportunity to air out some of the concerns," DuBray said.

Dave Earling, chairman of the Sound Transit board, confirmed that agency officials would go to the hearing.

"It's clear this is a high priority for Rogers," Earling said. "If it's a high priority for him, it is a high priority for Sound Transit."

Sheila Dezarn, the agency's government-relations manager, said the hearing "is an opportunity for us to explain what happened" and show that Sound Transit is overcoming its problems.

The agency has come under increasing attack by business groups, community leaders and even its own citizen-oversight panel since it revealed in December that the 21-mile rail project is $1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule.

Rogers has had his eye on Sound Transit since taking over as chairman of the transportation subcommittee earlier this year.

In January, Rogers asked the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to hold off signing the agreement to pay Sound Transit $500 million in federal money until his committee could get more information about the light-rail project.

Rodney Slater, secretary of transportation under former President Clinton, signed the deal anyway - on his last day at work.

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

Rogers, as chairman of the subcommittee, plays a key role in deciding if Sound Transit will get any of the money.

DuBray said the subcommittee hearing was one of several that have been set up to discuss issues facing different transportation agencies, such as the FTA and the Federal Aviation Administration.

"In the case of the March 29th hearing, it will ... be to look at some of the problems facing (the FTA). Here are two primary problems," the projects in Seattle and Puerto Rico, DuBray said.

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

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