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Tuesday, February 5, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light-rail foes open new battle

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Foes of Sound Transit's light-rail line yesterday opened a new front in their campaign to kill the project, arguing it's illegal because the scaled-back line isn't the project voters approved six years ago.

"No Washington court has ever held that a deviation from a voter-approved project as significant as this one was permissible," lawyers for Sane Transit, the opposition coalition, said in a letter to Sound Transit.

They urged Sound Transit to seek a court ruling on the legality of the revised light-rail plan before selling bonds to pay for the project. If the issue isn't settled now, they warned, the bonds' validity was certain to be challenged, and a bond default could result.

Sound Transit officials said they believed the changes in the $2.1 billion project were legal. They had no immediate comment on whether the agency would seek the pre-emptive court ruling Sane Transit wants.

But Mark Baerwaldt, Sane Transit's vice chairman, said that by formally raising the issue the coalition was forcing Sound Transit's hand, leaving the agency no option but to seek clarification in court to satisfy the bond market.

"The (Sound Transit) board has no choice in their fiduciary capacity but to do this," he said. "No one would be stupid enough not to."

Baerwaldt characterized the letter as the opening salvo in a new legal fight.

The Sound Transit package voters approved in 1996 called for a 21-mile light-rail line from Seattle's University District to SeaTac, to be built by 2006.

But last fall, confronted with escalating costs and schedule delays, the agency scaled back the project to a 14-mile line from downtown Seattle to Tukwila. It also pushed back the completion date to 2009.

Such major changes require another vote under state law, Sane Transit lawyers Bradley Bagshaw and David Jurca wrote: "Since the 1920s the Washington Supreme Court has clearly stated that projects funded by voter-approved taxes must be built in substantially the form approved by the voters."

They cite three cases — a streetcar line in Seattle, a water pipeline in Anacortes and a freeway in Spokane — in which the high court struck down government changes in project alignments after voters had approved something different.

The most recent ruling came in 1965.

If Sound Transit doesn't stop spending money on light rail, the lawyers warn, it could suffer the same fate as the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), which in 1983 defaulted on more than $2 billion in bonds issued to build two nuclear-power plants. Jurca represented utilities who argued, successfully, that they weren't obligated to pay off those bonds.

If a court rules that Sound Transit lacks authority to guarantee payment on bonds issued to pay for light rail, he and Bagshaw wrote, "the bonds will be in default, and the tracks that will have been laid will remain as monuments to bad decisions, just as do the unused WPPSS cooling towers outside Elma (Grays Harbor County)."

In its letter, Sane Transit also questioned for the first time another Sound Transit project: its "Sounder" commuter-rail line, which now runs from Seattle to Tacoma but is to be extended north to Everett and south to Lakewood, Pierce County.

Sound Transit should stop spending taxpayer money on the line because it carries so few passengers at such high cost that it violates the agency's legal mandate to provide "high-capacity transportation," the opposition coalition charged.

Environmental challenge

In a related development that also could end up in court, Sound Transit yesterday released its formal assessment of the environmental effects of the revised light-rail project.

John Niles, Sane Transit's technical coordinator, said the document left too much out.

Sound Transit's 50-page "environmental assessment" concludes, among other things, that the shorter line would be better for congestion in downtown Seattle than the original proposal because buses would continue to operate in the downtown bus tunnel, sharing it with trains. The original light-rail plan called for rail only in the tunnel, forcing buses onto surface streets.

But Sound Transit officials said the document didn't address changing economic and political circumstances, light rail's relationship with a potential Seattle monorail or the alternative of high-speed bus service — all issues that Niles had urged be included.

Sound Transit officials said they were confident the document would satisfy the Federal Transit Administration, which ordered the additional study last fall as a condition for possibly restoring federal funding for the project.

Sane Transit has asked the federal agency to order a more detailed environmental-impact statement, which Sound Transit says would take months to complete. The coalition already has a lawsuit pending in federal court that charges the regional-transit agency has not addressed the environmental consequences of light rail adequately.

Sound Transit has scheduled a hearing on its environmental assessment Feb. 21 from 6 to 8 p.m. at its offices in Seattle's Union Station, 401 S. Jackson St.

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

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