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Sunday, May 20, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light-rail talk grim: Time to cut losses?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Some Sound Transit board members are starting to wonder if there's a light-rail project the agency can afford that's worth building.

They're even starting to wonder what to do with the money if light rail dies.

In 1996, voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties approved spending about $2.3 billion, adjusted for inflation, to build a 21-mile system from the city of SeaTac to the University District. It was expected to carry more than 120,000 riders daily by 2020.

That plan has been scrapped because budget increases raised the cost more than 50 percent.

Now the agency is debating whether to build a shorter line. One option the board was considering recently was to head south toward SeaTac and put off going north to the University District. A 14-mile line from downtown Seattle to SeaTac is expected to cost about $2.4 billion and carry up to 51,000 passengers daily.

In other words, under that option, voters would get a shorter light-rail system, carrying about half as many riders as the original project. But it would still cost as much as the bigger system voters approved.

Going north would be delayed, but no one is sure for how long. Some board members worry it could be at least a decade.

"I'm not going to support light rail as I'm grabbing an anchor sinking down to the bottom of the ocean," said Kevin Phelps, a Sound Transit board member and Tacoma's deputy mayor.

'Back to drawing board'

Phelps said if the board is faced with building light rail south and waiting a decade or more to go north, "I won't buy into that. I would rather go back to the drawing board."

Phelps favors putting more money into Sound Transit's commuter rail, which now has two trains running between Tacoma and Seattle during the morning and afternoon.

Phelps said some Sound Transit board members from communities south of Seattle had started talking about what do with the agency's money if light rail dies.

Jim White, a board member and the mayor of Kent, said he had been part of those discussions. White says he hasn't given up on light rail but wants to consider what the options would be if the project dies.

"I'm one of those who thinks we should think about beefing up commuter rail," he says.

Rob McKenna, a member of the Sound Transit board and the Metropolitan King County Council, also wants to see money put into commuter rail, as well as buses and car-pool lanes, if light rail dies.

McKenna says he won't support building a light-rail line that starts south but delays going north for a decade or more, if at all.

Sound Transit was supposed to build a regional light-rail system, says McKenna, a longtime critic of light rail. With a shorter line running from downtown to SeaTac, "At best you are carrying a lot of people who are making local trips," he said. "This does not amount to regional transit."

The latest estimated cost for building the entire 21-mile line is $3.6 billion, not including financing and other costs, which would bring it to $4.1 billion.

The fact that some board members are talking about how to spend Sound Transit's money if light rail dies represents a significant shift. A year ago, McKenna was about the only board member publicly raising the issue.

Some strong supporters

Still, it's a big board, with 18 members. And many have expressed strong support for building a light-rail line, even if it means starting south and waiting to go north.

Ann Kirk Davis, a board member and Lakewood City Council member, said the agency needs to get moving. "Very frankly, the public seems to be getting tired of not doing anything," she said.

If the board decides to head south first and wait a decade to get to the University District, "so be it," Davis said.

Joni Earl, Sound Transit's acting executive director, noted that other cities have built light rail in phases and said a decade delay between segments isn't that unusual. The agency is looking into ways to start heading north as quickly as possible, she said, if the board decides to build the southern section first.

It's not clear when the board will make a decision. Earl's staff is compiling options for the panel to consider. But a growing number of board members acknowledge time is running out.

Phelps said the controversy over light rail has obscured the success of Sound Transit's commuter-rail and bus operations. "We're letting light rail shoot down the impact of the entire organization," he said.

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

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