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Friday, April 27, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light rail can't be finished by 2009

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit can't build a 21-mile light-rail system from SeaTac to Seattle's University District by 2009.

That's the reluctant conclusion of Sound Transit staff after crunching numbers the past few weeks.

"I don't think it's conceivable to do the whole thing" by 2009, said Joni Earl, the agency's acting executive director.

This represents the agency's second projected delay in completing the system. In December, Sound Transit said the rail line, which was expected to be done by 2006, would be delayed by three years. Now, no date is being given.

The agency has the money - about $2 billion in local funds - to build something before the end of this decade. But during a Sound Transit board workshop yesterday, there was no consensus about what to do next.

"You're seeing the beginning of the debate to carve up the 21 miles," said board member Rob McKenna, a Metropolitan King County councilman and light-rail critic.

Sound Transit had planned to split the light-rail project into two parts. The first phase would build a $2.6 billion, seven-mile segment from South Lander Street in South Seattle 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 was to be completed in 2009.

The latest blow to that plan came earlier this month, when Sound Transit concluded it would fall at least $190 million short of the $4.1 billion needed to complete the system. The predicted shortfall results from changes in the amount of federal money the agency believes it can get.

Sound Transit board members yesterday were all over the map about what to do.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, a member of the board, said he strongly believes the agency should consider building light rail from downtown Seattle to SeaTac, and then figure out a way to reach the University District. "It's quick and we can afford it," he said.

Board Chairman Dave Earling suggested building light rail from Tukwila north to Capitol Hill first, to salvage as much of the ridership as possible and get the federal money promised for the project.

"This is the type of discussion we want to have," Earling said after the meeting. He said he expects the board to decide what type of system to build by September.

Sound Transit staff gave more details yesterday about the projected costs of various segments of the 21-mile line, so that the panel could decide what to keep and what to postpone.

The agency, using only local money, probably could afford to build light rail from the Convention Place station south through the downtown transit tunnel to Tukwila by 2008, said Lyndon "Tuck" Wilson, Sound Transit's acting light-rail director. It would cost about an additional $400 million to go to SeaTac and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he said.

That extra money probably would have to come from the federal government, which is increasingly skeptical about the project.

Sound Transit has an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for $500 million in federal grants through 2006 for the northern part of the route. However, allocations for this year and next, totaling $125 million, are on hold because of a report from the inspector general in the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The report questioned Sound Transit's construction-cost estimate for 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.

The FTA has said Sound Transit was too optimistic about how much additional federal money it could get. It suggested the agency scale back future requests. Sound Transit is scrambling to answer the inspector general's questions, decide how much federal money it's likely to get, and reconfigure the light-rail line within a few months.

One key issue is the number of riders, Wilson said. A light-rail line from Convention Place to SeaTac would carry 35,000 to 50,000 riders daily. By comparison, a line from South Lander Street to the U District would have about 85,000 riders daily.

"The central question is where is there consensus to build light rail now?" Wilson said.

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

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