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Thursday, April 12, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Federal help needed even if light rail starts south

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit probably can't build the southern leg of its 21-mile light-rail system without some federal money.

That was the assessment yesterday of light-rail officials at a meeting of the agency's Project Review Committee, which was created earlier this year to examine the project, which is over its budget and behind schedule.

The $4.1 billion project is expected to stretch 21 miles from Seattle's University District to SeaTac. Federal money needed for the project is on hold because of controversy over the cost.

Sound Transit's plans would 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 to SeaTac and cost about $1.5 billion. The entire system is supposed to be completed in 2009.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, worried about growing problems, earlier this week raised the prospect of building light rail from the Chinatown International District south to SeaTac, before tackling the more expensive northern route from downtown to the U District.

The northern segment is to include 4½ miles of tunnel. Sound Transit plans to start work on that section first.

Schell, a member of the Sound Transit board, asked the review committee to consider going south first and to find out whether that segment could be built using just local money.

Yesterday, Joni Earl, Sound Transit's acting executive director, told the committee, she doubted it could be done without federal help. "I'm not sure we can."

Lyndon "Tuck" Wilson, the agency's acting light-rail director, backed that up after the meeting, saying a quick look at the numbers indicates there's not enough local money available to do the job.

Sound Transit hopes to get $1.4 billion in federal grants to help build the system. It has an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration for $500 million in grants through 2006, but that money is on hold because of a U.S. 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 it. The inspector general recommended Sound Transit not get any money until it could prove its numbers were accurate and Congress had more time to review the project.

The $500 million federal agreement is slated to be spent on the northern segment to the U District. Sound Transit is looking into the possibility of shifting the money for the southern route to the airport.

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

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