Shorter light-rail line OK'd
Seattle Times staff reporter
By a 12 to 4 vote, Sound Transit's board yesterday pressed ahead with plans for a $2.1 billion, 14-mile light-rail system, despite objections by some board members that it's not worth the money.
The preliminary vote came after months of political haggling over the future of the project, which seemed in jeopardy earlier this year. A final decision will be made in November.
The following voted no: Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, Everett Mayor Ed Hansen and King County Council members Rob McKenna and Jane Hague.
"We might actually start building something next summer. That's a good thing," said Dave Earling, the board chairman, just before the votes were cast.
Schell opposed the project, in part, because the light-rail line from downtown Seattle to South 154th Street in Tukwila would stop a mile short of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. "There is the question of common sense here," he said.
The board made its decision after sitting through more than an hour of mixed public testimony.
"I think it's time to get started. People want options," state Rep. Ruth Fisher, D-Tacoma, co-chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, told the board.
"This is simply a waste of our funds," said another speaker, Ed Sterner, a Lake Forest Park city councilman who is running for a seat on the Metropolitan King County Council.
Although some of the words were harsh, everyone — supporters, critics and board members — looked fatigued by the months of seemingly endless debate. The boardroom was packed with people who filled the seats and lined the walls. But the crowd was subdued compared to the mood of past hearings. There were no signs and no heckling.
The project approved yesterday is a scaled-back version of a plan approved by voters in 1996 to run light rail from the city of SeaTac to the University District in Seattle. That system would have cost $114 million a mile to build. It was projected to have 127,000 daily boardings.
Sound Transit had to cut back after revealing in December that the project was more than $1 billion over budget.
Even so, the new project will cost $150 million per mile to build and will require $500 million in federal aid. Initially, there will be a shuttle service to the airport.
Sound Transit says the line is a starter system that will be extended in the future.
The board yesterday directed the agency's staff to explore ways to get to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and also to evaluate routes heading north from downtown to Northgate.
Some board members yesterday asked whether Sound Transit is spending its money wisely.
"We have chosen an extremely expensive technology," Hansen said. "I'm very disappointed we aren't considering more cost-effective alternatives."
McKenna, a light-rail critic, questioned whether Sound Transit will have enough money to complete the system promised voters in 1996. "We're making a commitment for a future tax increase," he said. Sound Transit officials say the agency will need hundreds of millions in additional funding to extend light rail to SeaTac and the U District. They're not sure yet where all the money would come from. The agency has the option of increasing taxes, but officials have said that would be a last resort.
Projections show that after building the initial link, Sound Transit would have $12 million to extend light rail south to Sea-Tac Airport and the city of SeaTac, and $411 million to go north to the U District. Sound Transit officials acknowledge that's not enough money to extend light rail in either direction.
Just getting to South 200th Street in SeaTac is expected to cost between $350 million and $450 million. The cost depends in part on what it will cost to build a station at Sea-Tac Airport. Sound Transit doesn't have cost estimates yet for reaching the U District.
The agency says it should be able to complete the entire 21-mile line by cutting costs, getting more federal money and pursuing other options, such as selling more bonds.
Although Sound Transit says it has plenty of money to complete the project approved yesterday, the agency has hurdles ahead.
One of the main ones: the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The inspector general earlier this year raised questions about Sound Transit's construction-cost estimates, and the agency's ability to pay for a light-rail system. It was recommended the agency not get any federal money until it had proved its numbers were accurate and Congress had more time to review the proposal.
The project has changed considerably since then, but Sound Transit still has to convince the inspector general the agency has taken care of its problems.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, has said $500 million in federal aid is waiting for Sound Transit, assuming the agency can clear up remaining questions by the inspector general and the Federal Transit Administration.
Richard McIver, a board member and Seattle city councilman, echoing the comments of most board members, said it's simply time for Sound Transit to start building light rail.
"Waiting is not going to decrease the cost of this," he said.
Andrew Garber can be reached at 206-464-2595 or email@example.com.