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Friday, March 30, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Federal aid in jeopardy for light rail

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit expected a rough day in Congress yesterday, and it got one.

The House Appropriations transportation subcommittee zeroed in on the agency's troubled light-rail venture and wouldn't let go during a three-hour hearing on "problem" transit projects.

What's at stake

• $75 million in federal dollars next year.
• $500 million through 2006.
• $1.4 billion in total federal grants.
By the end of the day, Sound Transit's chances of getting any federal money for the $3.8 billion rail system remained in doubt.

"From the outset there were red flags, and a number of red flags are still flying," U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said after the hearing. He chairs the panel and will play a key role in deciding if the project gets federal money.

Sound Transit is counting on more than $1.4 billion in federal grant money to help build the light-rail system. The agency signed an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in January that promises $500 million between now and 2006.

Now Rogers' committee is mulling whether Sound Transit should get the $75 million installment promised next year.

The hearing was held in a cramped committee room with just enough chairs for a few dozen lobbyists and staff members from transit agencies. The day was expected to deal with questions about a project in Puerto Rico, Sound Transit and the FTA in general. But two-thirds of the hearing focused on Seattle.

Rogers called the Seattle area's light-rail plan his committee's "most troubling project." He hammered away with questions, reading excerpts from newspaper clippings and reports handed to him by staff members.

His long list of concerns include local opposition to light rail in the Seattle area, the project's $1 billion cost overrun and the fact Sound Transit wants record amounts of federal money to build the 21-mile system.

The very fact Sound Transit is controversial raises concerns, Rogers said. "Practically every project that gets this far along, we hear nothing but good things."

He was especially angry about the FTA agreement in January promising the $500 million. The agency ignored a request by Rogers to hold off until he could study the matter.

"There was absolutely no congressional review, as required, of the modified costs ... before the agreement was executed," he said, "and little if any oversight by the FTA. This action is unconscionable."

Rodney Slater, secretary of transportation under President Clinton, signed the agreement on his last day in office.

Hiram Walker, an FTA deputy administrator, yesterday said his agency moved too fast when it signed the agreement. "I was a reluctant participant," he said, adding that he argued against the move.

Rogers questioned if the FTA could be trusted to properly oversee large projects such as light rail in Seattle. "This committee will not watch the FTA pour taxpayer funds down the drain," he said.

He told Walker the FTA had to make sure money for transit projects is spent wisely. "When your office fails to do this, I will make the difficult decisions for you. Trust me, this will not be a pleasant experience."

Rogers closely questioned Joni Earl, Sound Transit's acting executive director, about why the light-rail project was $1 billion over budget and who would pay the money.

"I'm having trouble getting a handle on the total cost of this project," he said.

Earl outlined the reasons for cost overruns, such as increased costs for land and tunneling. She said the agency's current budget looked firm but added, "I cannot guarantee that."

Rogers noted that Sound Transit was banking on getting an unusually large amount of federal money for the project. The federal payments are expected to reach $100 million annually in 2007 and stay at that level for nine years.

"No one has consistently gotten that much money year after year," Rogers said. "If you're unable to get record amounts year in and year out, where would you raise local funds?"

Earl said the Sound Transit board was looking into the question.

Although she was in the hot seat for an hour, Earl did not seem intimidated. U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, sat by Earl's side after introducing her to the committee and arguing for the light-rail project. Earl said Dicks' presence helped her get through the hearing.

Rogers would not say when he expects his committee to make a decision on giving Sound Transit money. He's waiting for a report from the U.S. Inspector General's Office, which is auditing Sound Transit's books. A preliminary reported is expected next week.

Rogers said he still has an open mind about light rail in Seattle but said, "I don't think the project was completely baked" when the FTA approved it in January.

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

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