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Friday, June 29, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sound Transit looks south for its first line

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit yesterday decided to try to jump-start its embattled light-rail project by focusing on an initial line from downtown Seattle to the city of SeaTac.

The Sound Transit board directed the agency's staff to study building a southern segment - from South Royal Brougham Way or the downtown bus tunnel's Convention Place Station to South 200th Street - and report back in September, when a final decision will be made.

However, even that modest beginning, the agency concedes, would cost about $2.3 billion, including $500 million in federal aid that is now on hold.

The board also decided to shelve for now further studies of a tunnel under Capitol Hill and to look at alternative routes to the north through the South Lake Union area.

Sound Transit will also examine whether it can accommodate Metro buses in the downtown bus tunnel along with light rail.

Yesterday's decisions were anything but final, but they represent a new consensus on the citizen board, which has been struggling to refocus the agency after cost overruns that killed Sound Transit's original plans to build from SeaTac to Northgate.

Light-rail supporters hope that by starting work on a southern segment, Sound Transit will show it can get something built. If that happens, they argue, money and support would materialize later.

"What I hear from folks is `get started, get moving,' " said Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, the Sound Transit board member who first proposed the build-south option.

But critics worry the southern segment won't attract enough riders because it wouldn't connect with population and job centers such as Capitol Hill and the University District.

"It is kind of a trip to nowhere," said Metropolitan King County Councilman Greg Nickels.

Nickels, who is running for mayor of Seattle, challenged a motion by Schell to shelve further studies of the Capitol Hill tunnel for now, calling it "lacking in vision." But a majority of the board sided with Schell.

The most controversial item yesterday was a proposed study of a South Lake Union route as a possible cheaper alternative to the Capitol Hill tunnel.

"We're making another Kingdome decision here. We're going to regret this," predicted Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan, who argued against altering routes just to save money.

In 1996, voters approved a plan to build a 21-mile light-rail line from SeaTac to the University District by 2006. But that plan in recent years has been trashed by $1 billion in cost overruns.

The plan endorsed yesterday would seek a more modest, 16-mile line. And, the agency says, it still would need federal aid.

But Sound Transit supporters were careful to note the eventual goal would remain the same: to extend light rail through North Seattle to Northgate and beyond.

The board yesterday also received recommendations from a project-review committee headed by former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer. The panel, commissioned to find ways to reduce costs after a critical inspector general's report released in April, generally endorsed the build-south approach.

But the Royer committee argued that the initial rail line ought to stop south of downtown and leave the bus tunnel for buses until light rail attracts enough riders.

A proposal to link light rail with Southcenter was scrapped as too expensive yesterday. It would have added an estimated $260 million to the costs.

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