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Wednesday, January 9, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rail foes threaten to try referendum

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Foes of Sound Transit's light-rail line are considering mounting a referendum campaign to block the project by prohibiting trains in the downtown Seattle bus tunnel.

Sound Transit's plans call for the proposed 14-mile rail line to share the tunnel with buses. The agency is negotiating a joint-use agreement with King County, the tunnel's owner, and County Executive Ron Sims hopes to present an agreement to the Metropolitan King County Council by spring.

If the council approves the agreement, as now seems likely, opponents may seek to overturn it at the polls, former County Councilwoman Maggi Fimia, a Shoreline Democrat, said yesterday.

She said it is only one option, and she expressed hope the council still could be persuaded to reject the deal.

Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, another light-rail opponent, said a referendum campaign had been discussed but hadn't been a major focus of his attention.

"No county ordinance has been subjected to referendum in a long, long time," he said. "I don't want to get too far ahead."

Like Fimia, McKenna said the council was likely to approve any deal Sims proposed. But he predicted "a raging debate."

The possibility of a referendum surfaced yesterday as McKenna, Fimia and Councilman David Irons Jr., R-Sammamish, released results of a survey they said showed widespread voter opposition to Sound Transit's light-rail plan.

The 400 county voters surveyed by phone last month were read a series of statements about Sound Transit, including several about its effect on the bus tunnel, and asked whether that information made them more or less likely to support light rail. It's a technique often employed by pollsters in election campaigns.

Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, a light-rail supporter, slammed the survey's methodology and goals.

"This is not a public-information poll designed by elected officials to gauge public sentiment," he said. "It is the type of poll a public-relations firm conducts to test how voters respond to various arguments they might see in a political campaign."

Pelz said the information in the survey about light rail and its alternatives was false or misleading and skewed the results. But McKenna and Fimia said the statements were accurate.

"They support light rail until you start giving them the facts," Fimia said.

"If you give them the facts, their opinion of it changes," McKenna added. "That's a reasonable thing to do."

They said the survey wasn't intended to test campaign arguments but to influence such decision-makers as the County Council, the Sound Transit board and federal officials. Sound Transit is counting on federal money to help pay for the light-rail line, which would run from downtown Seattle to Tukwila.

Fimia singled out U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation: "She needs to know this is not a popular project."

But Pelz said he suspected that the council-funded survey was campaign research and that McKenna, Irons and Fimia may have violated laws against using public dollars for political purposes.

Sims spokeswoman Elaine Kraft downplayed the possibility of a referendum. "They talk about a lot of things," she said of the survey's sponsors.

Should a referendum campaign materialize, opponents of trains in the bus tunnel would be required to collect the signatures of about 35,000 county voters to place the issue on the ballot.

The council could preclude a referendum by adopting the joint-use agreement as an emergency measure, but that would require the support of nine of its 13 members.

One anti-light-rail measure already is headed for the November ballot. Tax rebel Tim Eyman of Mukilteo this week filed Initiative 776, which would eliminate the local-option motor-vehicle excise tax that provides 20 percent of Sound Transit's revenues.

But both Fimia and McKenna oppose Eyman's initiative. Fimia said she didn't want to cut funding for mass transit, just to spend it on something other than light rail.

Eric Pryne can be reached at 206- 464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com.

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