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Friday, February 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light-rail route options in north narrowed to two

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If Sound Transit ever builds a light-rail line north from downtown Seattle, it almost certainly won't cross the Lake Washington Ship Canal on a bridge.

And it almost certainly won't bypass the University District.

The Sound Transit board eliminated those options yesterday, narrowing to two the number of possible new routes in the university area that it will study seriously.

The survivors:

• A tunnel under the Montlake Cut and the University of Washington campus, with stations at the southeast and northwest corners of the campus.

• A tunnel under the Ship Canal near the University Bridge, then north underground along either Brooklyn Avenue Northeast or 15th Avenue Northeast to a station at Northeast 45th Street. An additional station farther south in the University District also will be considered.

Officially, a tunnel under Portage Bay and up 15th Northeast — Sound Transit's original route north — also remains under consideration. But Sound Transit staff and several board members say it's unlikely to be picked.

"We know we can't afford it," Tacoma Deputy Mayor Kevin Phelps said.

A University District-downtown link with a tunnel under Capitol Hill and Portage Bay was part of the 21-mile light-rail package voters approved in 1996. Big cost overruns, caused in part by the higher-than-expected cost of tunneling under Portage Bay, forced the agency to mothball that plan last year.

The board later adopted a scaled-back, 14-mile line from downtown to Tukwila. But it vowed to extend the line to Northgate eventually, ordering staff to continue researching financing and routes.

Sound Transit still doesn't have any money to go north. But with route alternatives chosen, planners now will begin more detailed engineering and environmental studies.

The board will pick a preferred route early next year.

Yesterday, the board killed two options that would have crossed the Ship Canal on a bridge just east of Interstate 5. One would have continued north above ground along I-5 to a station at Northeast 45th, bypassing the University District.

Preliminary analysis suggested that while the bypass route might have been much cheaper than the tunnel routes, it would have attracted only half as many riders.

But many on the board argued to preserve it as an option, although none really liked it.

Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver said the public remains interested in the route. Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg said the UW has tried to "bully" Sound Transit in past negotiations, so the agency needs to preserve an option that avoids the campus.

State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald agreed. "A negotiator needs to keep one card in his back pocket on this," he said.

But the university, the Northeast District Council and University District Chamber of Commerce said the route should be dropped. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels agreed, saying it had been studied and rejected before: "Nobody wants to ride it."

A move to keep the bypass route alive failed on a tie vote. King County Executive Ron Sims, the board chairman, said it could be resurrected later if engineers discover fatal flaws with either of the new tunnel options.

Sound Transit's original route from downtown to the Ship Canal was a tunnel under First Hill and Capitol Hill, with stations in each neighborhood. The board voted last month to study two other routes for that segment.

One would bypass First Hill. The other would follow Eastlake Avenue East.

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