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Thursday, September 13, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sound Transit says it can build 14-mile line; light rail stops short of airport

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sound Transit says it has enough money to pay for a 14-mile light-rail line which by 2009 would be moving people from downtown Seattle to within a mile of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

New estimates released yesterday indicate the project would cost $2.1 billion and would be paid for in part with $500 million in federal funds yet to be approved by Congress.

Sound Transit officials were unable to compare the cost with that of previous plans with essentially the same route. They said the manner in which such costs are computed makes relevant comparison difficult.

Yesterday's pronouncement by five of Sound Transit's 18 board members and key agency staff assumes the federal government will release the $500 million to help fund the project, and that contingencies will be adequate to cover unexpected construction and design expenses.

"The board made a commitment not to turn a shovel of dirt until we had a project we could pay for," said Board Chairman Dave Earling. "I think we've reached that point."

The latest proposal will be evaluated by the full board today and will be returned to the board for approval on Sept. 27 after the finance committee has a crack at it.

The five board members yesterday focused on the potential to begin building the project next June or July and on the number of people projected to use the system.

They also expressed enthusiasm about what they said would be $410 million in local funds remaining after the project is built. Those funds, they said, could be used to leverage additional money from the federal government to build a light-rail line from downtown to North Seattle.

"We think this is a great starter system," Earling said. "It's not building something just to build something. It's building a system that makes sense."

Critics of the agency's light-rail plans have accused the agency of overestimating ridership and underestimating costs. They say the billions slated for light rail would be better used on alternatives such as buses and monorail.

As proposed, light rail would start at Convention Place Station, move through the downtown bus tunnel, continue through Rainier Valley and Tukwila before ending at a park-and-ride lot at South 154th Street and Highway 518 in SeaTac. From there, riders would take a 3-1/2-minute bus ride to the airport.

Joni Earl, the agency's executive director, said the route ends short of the airport because plans for airport expansion have not been completed. Sound Transit's proposal includes money to plan for a station at the airport but so far has no money to build it.

The 33-minute route, which would have 11 stops, is projected to attract 41,000 daily riders.

King County Executive Ron Sims said most of the riders would be using the system to go to work.

"Who cares where they're going?" added Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg. "They're not going to be on I-5 and on the surface streets."

Seattle Times staff reporter Susan Kelleher can be reached at 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com.

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