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Friday, April 13, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light rail can't be built as planned

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit's current plan for light rail is dead.

The agency expects to fall at least $190 million short of what it needs to build the proposed $4.1 billion system. That's because of changes in the amount of federal money Sound Transit believes it can get.

So something in the project has to give. The number of stations, the route for light rail and the tunneling under Capitol Hill are all up in the air.

"The current financial plan and schedule (for light rail) is dead," Rob McKenna, a member of the Sound Transit board, said after the news was announced during a board meeting yesterday.

Other board members and the agency's acting executive director, Joni Earl, weren't as blunt, but they generally agreed.

"We're going to have to change the alignment," said Ron Sims, a board member and King County executive.

That could mean changing the number of stations or the path that light rail takes through Seattle. For example, Sims said, he believes light rail could be built from downtown Seattle to the University District without digging 4½ miles of tunnel, the most expensive part of the project as now planned.

Sound Transit had planned to 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 U 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.

Sims and Earl still hold out hope that some sort of light-rail system can be built between SeaTac and the U District by 2009. But McKenna, a longtime critic of light rail, says that date is a lost cause.

The shortfall in money is not a deathblow, he said. "I don't think it will kill light rail. I think it will delay it a lot, and it will be different."

Ultimately, McKenna said, the region might end up with a much shorter light-rail line than it was promised.

Sound Transit's new money troubles stem from its expectation of getting $1.4 billion in federal money to help build the project.

The agency has an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for a total of $500 million in federal grants through 2006. However, allocations for this year and 2002 - totaling $125 million - have been put on hold because of a recent report from the inspector general in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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 proved its numbers were accurate and Congress had more time to review the project.

While it's not certain whether Sound Transit will get the money, a delay by itself is expected to cost the agency about $40 million because of lost interest earnings and other factors.

The agency needs to work quickly to satisfy the inspector general and get the money flowing again, Earl said. "Time is of the essence because time is money."

The FTA also has told the agency it is banking on getting too much federal money in the future. Sound Transit now expects, in the best case, to get about $1.28 billion in federal grants, instead of $1.4 billion.

The Sound Transit board yesterday was clearly interested in pursuing suggestions by Sims and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, also a board member, to consider flopping the project and building the less-expensive southern leg first from the Chinatown International District to SeaTac.

Agency budget officials say Sound Transit has up to $2.6 billion in local money that could be used to build some sort of light-rail project. But not all of that could be used to build the southern portion because money generated in North King County and South King County has to stay in those areas. The agency would still need some federal grants to go south first.

Sims also said the agency needed to seriously consider running both buses and trains at the same time through the downtown transit tunnel. That would save money because Sound Transit then might not have to pay King County for using the downtown tunnel. Sound Transit had planned to pay the county for taking over the tunnel and sending buses out onto surface streets.

Greg Nickels, vice chairman of the Sound Transit board, said the agency was clearly in a different game with new rules.

"The question becomes, `Now what?' " he said. "We cannot allow this to pass us by. What can we build within our means?"

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

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