Rail foes push for court ruling, but Sound Transit declines to test its own legality
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sound Transit won't accept its opponents' invitation to take itself to court to determine whether a scaled-back light-rail line is legal, King County Executive Ron Sims says.
"I couldn't see a single up side," Sims, who is also Sound Transit's board chairman, said yesterday. "It's just really premature."
In a letter to Sound Transit weeks ago, lawyers for Sane Transit, the coalition that opposes light rail, argued the 14-mile line the agency approved last fall is illegal because it's not the same project voters approved in 1996.
They urged the agency to seek a pre-emptive court ruling clarifying the project's legality before it sells bonds to finance the line. If the issue isn't settled now, they warned, the bonds' validity is certain to be challenged, and a bond default could result.
The Sound Transit board hasn't discussed the matter yet, Sims and executive director Joni Earl said. But they said seeking such a ruling now was a bad idea, for several reasons:
• Sound Transit would be required to pay the legal bills for both itself and its opponents under the type of legal proceeding Sane Transit suggested. Sims and Earl estimated the cost at $200,000.
"If people want to sue us, they should pay for it," Sims said.
• Sound Transit won't need to sell any bonds to pay for the $2.1 billion light-rail project for at least two years. Money from other sources will pay for construction until then, Earl said.
If there's a question about the project's legality at that time, Sims said, a court ruling still could be sought. But he said he was confident a court would uphold the changes the board made last fall.
• Initiating legal proceedings now would play into Sane Transit's hands politically, Sims said.
The opposition group is lobbying to kill federal support for light rail. If Sound Transit seeks a court ruling now, Sims said, opponents would suggest it reflected uncertainty about the project.
"Three thousand miles away (in Washington, D.C.), people wouldn't understand," he said.
Sound Transit is seeking $500 million in federal money. The agency plans to break ground on the light-rail line from downtown Seattle to Tukwila this year.
Mark Baerwaldt, Sane Transit vice chairman, called Sims' and Earl's comments "breathtakingly irresponsible." If Sound Transit begins construction now but a court rules later that the project is illegal, millions will have been wasted, he said.
The legal proceeding Sane Transit has suggested is designed to resolve such uncertainties before financial commitments are made, Baerwaldt said: "The taxpayers need this resolved, or else we're going to have a total disaster on our hands."
He hopes others on the Sound Transit board will overrule Sims. If not, Baerwaldt said, it's likely Sane Transit will sue the agency.
The Sound Transit package voters approved six years ago 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 and pushed the completion date back to 2009.
Sane Transit contends such major changes in a voter-approved project aren't allowed under state law, and that another public vote is required
Eric Pryne can be reached at 206- 464-2231, or firstname.lastname@example.org.