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Wednesday, April 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sims agrees: Start light rail in South End

Seattle Times staff reporter

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King County Executive Ron Sims agrees with Seattle Mayor Paul Schell: It's time to look at building the less-expensive southern leg of Sound Transit's troubled light-rail project first.

But that's just a start, Sims said yesterday.

In a letter to the agency's Project Review Committee, Sims suggested the panel also examine:

• Joint bus and light-rail use of the downtown Seattle bus tunnel, a move that would allow extension of the southern leg north through downtown to Convention Place.

• Rerouting the southern leg past Southcenter, an alternative the Sound Transit board rejected two years ago.

• Building three stations along the southern leg that the board dropped in 1999 to save money.

All three ideas could build ridership, Sims told reporters. Extending the southern leg north from the International District Station, Schell's proposed northern terminus, through downtown would nearly double the number of riders, he said.

Sound Transit's proposed 21-mile light-rail line from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to the University District has been on the ropes for months. It is $1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule. Federal money for the project has been suspended, and criticism has mounted.

Earlier this year the agency appointed the Project Review Committee, headed by former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, to take another look at its plans.

The northern leg, from downtown to the University District, now is scheduled for construction first. But Schell, like Sims a member of Sound Transit's board, suggested Monday that it be put off until the less-challenging southern leg from the airport to the International District was built.

Sims called Schell's suggestion "a prudent course of action." But ending the line at the International District would force light-rail passengers to transfer to buses to reach most of downtown, he added.

He said the county has been talking with Sound Transit for six weeks about joint bus-light rail use of the tunnel. "We know it's technically and operationally possible," he said, "but I don't want to promise anything."

More should be known in the next six weeks, he said. Under current plans, buses will stop using the tunnel before light-rail service starts.

Joint use would allow the tunnel to serve both light-rail commuters from the south and bus commuters from the north and east, Sims said. But the county needs to know whether emissions from new buses it is considering buying will be low enough to allow the buses to operate on diesel fuel in the tunnel.

Buses and light rail can't both operate on electric power in the tunnel, Sims said.

The proposed light-rail route through Tukwila now follows Highway 99. Tukwila officials tried unsuccessfully in 1999 to persuade the Sound Transit board to run it past Southcenter instead.

Sims said the Southcenter route makes sense, particularly if the southern leg is built first: "You need to go from one large commercial area to another large commercial area."

Sound Transit initially proposed light-rail stations along the southern leg in Seattle at Royal Brougham Way, Beacon Hill and South Graham Street, but dropped them in November 1999. Sims called for reconsideration of all three.

David Hopkins, his transportation adviser, said the Beacon Hill station alone could generate 3,000 riders a day.

Dave Earling, chairman of the Sound Transit board, said the board had been mulling different options for the light-rail project since it learned of the cost overruns and scheduling delays late last year.

He said he wasn't caught off guard by Sims' and Schell's suggestion to consider building the southern leg first.

David Enslow, vice chair of the board, said he still wanted to do the northern segment as well, but it's worth exploring going to the airport first.

But Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Maggi Fimia, D-Shoreline, a Sound Transit critic, said the southern leg would damage neighborhoods and was prohibitively expensive. If the agency decides to build only the southern leg, she said, the whole light-rail project should go back to the voters for approval.

Seattle Times staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

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