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Tuesday, April 10, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Schell: Put South End segment of light rail first

Seattle Times staff reporters

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Mayor Paul Schell, worried about growing problems with Sound Transit's $4.1 billion light-rail project, wants to look at building the less-expensive southern leg of the 21-mile system first.

Sound Transit's plans split the light-rail project into two parts. The first phase would involve building a $2.6 billion, seven-mile segment from South Lander Street north to the University District. The second phase would go south 14 miles, from South Lander Street to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and cost about $1.5 billion. The entire system is supposed to be completed in 2009.

Schell, in a letter to the agency's Project Review Committee yesterday, points out that the north segment has a lot of "challenges," including rapid escalation of costs for land, risks involved in tunneling under Capitol Hill and a recent announcement by the federal government that it plans to withhold $125 million in grants.

"Make no mistake. It's time to get started and build light rail. So it's important not to let the controversy over the cost and alignment of the section going north kill the whole project," said Schell, one of Seattle's two representatives on Sound Transit's board.

Schell said that while the southern segment was being built, the community could continue to discuss options for the northern segment. He said all options, such as running light rail along Interstate 5, ought to be considered.

Schell's proposal, and Sound Transit's fate, will likely have political implications as the mayor faces a tough campaign for a second term. By asking for a delay and rethinking of Sound Transit's northern segment, he could earn points with downtown power brokers who object to light rail supplanting buses in the bus tunnel.

"We must have a project that does not increase congestion downtown by taking over the bus tunnel before (light rail) gets to Northgate," Schell said yesterday.

But Schell denied his proposal was politically motivated, saying that coming up with a regional-transit solution was vital no matter who was mayor.

One of Schell's chief rivals in the mayoral race, Metropolitan King County Councilman Greg Nickels, said of Schell's proposal, "I don't think it's a bad idea. It's worth taking a look."

Nickels, who chairs Sound Transit's finance committee, said he didn't view Schell's idea as politically motivated.

Meanwhile, City Councilman Nick Licata, a Sound Transit critic, said Schell's proposal, while well-intentioned, didn't go far enough. He said light-rail backers were reluctant to look at scrapping light rail in favor of other options such as more carpool lanes and an expanded monorail.

The Project Review Committee, was created by Sound Transit earlier this year to review the light-rail project, which is more than $1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule. Former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer heads the panel.

Schell asked the committee to look at several questions:

• Would the airport link by itself have enough riders to operate effectively?

• Could the airport-link segment be built without using federal money?

• Could federal money planned for the northern segment be shifted to the airport link?

A Sound Transit spokeswoman said yesterday the agency did not have answers to those questions yet but expects to in the next couple of weeks.

Sound Transit needs $500 million in federal money to help build the first phase of light rail and is banking on an additional $931 million in federal grants for the airport link.

The agency has an agreement with the Federal Transit Agency promising a total of $500 million in grants through 2006, but the money has been put on hold because of an Inspector General's report released last week.

The report questioned Sound Transit's cost estimate for building light rail and the agency's ability to pay for the project. The Inspector General recommended Sound Transit not get any money until it proves its numbers were accurate and Congress had more time to review the project.

Royer yesterday said his panel would be glad to look into Schell's suggestion, but the members have to get up to speed about the project first. His committee is scheduled to meet on Wednesday from noon to 3 p.m. at the Puget Sound Regional Council office, 1011 Western Avenue.

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

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