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Friday, June 15, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rail agency is urged to skip tunnel

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit is under growing pressure to consider a light-rail route through South Lake Union instead of tunneling under Seattle's Capitol Hill.

"Our ability to complete light rail is in serious doubt because of the escalating costs and risk of the Capitol Hill tunnel route," a coalition of community leaders wrote in a letter to the agency board yesterday. "We believe ... Sound Transit should immediately begin developing an alternative alignment through South Lake Union."

The letter was presented to the board by Michael Vaska, a Seattle attorney, Aaron Ostrom with 1000 Friends of Washington and former Gov. Daniel Evans. They said the alternative route could substantially reduce costs.

Evans, who is on the University of Washington Board of Regents, raised the prospect of the university building a research campus in South Lake Union. Evans said the university was not actively pursuing such a step, but it was an option. "We're running out of space for research," he said.

H. Mason Sizemore, president and chief operating officer of The Seattle Times, also sent a letter to the Sound Transit board this week supporting a South Lake Union route if the agency decides to drop Capitol Hill. The Times owns land in the South Lake Union area.

Sizemore noted the letter represented The Times business view and was "totally divorced from decisions involving news coverage and editorial endorsements."

King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, both Sound Transit board members, broached the idea of going through South Lake Union in May as a possible way to save money.

The agency originally planned to build a 21-mile light-rail system in two parts. The first, seven-mile northern phase would have been built from South Lander Street to the University District going through Capitol Hill. A 14-mile southern segment would have been built between South Lander Street and SeaTac.

In December, Sound Transit revealed that the light-rail project was more than $1 billion over budget. Cost increases for the Capitol Hill tunnel played a major role in the budget overrun.

The agency has had to scrap its original plans and is now debating how large a light-rail system to start with and what route it should take.

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

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