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Saturday, March 2, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sims: Light rail might reach U District without new taxes

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit's top leaders say it may be possible to extend the agency's proposed light-rail line north from downtown Seattle to the University District without asking voters for more money.

"That's what we'd like," King County Executive Ron Sims said yesterday.

But Sims, who also is Sound Transit's board chairman, and agency executive director Joni Earl said the feasibility of such a plan hinged on several unknowns, including:

• How much money alternative route alignments north of downtown might save.

• Whether the federal government can be persuaded to help pay to go north.

• Whether the agency's financial plan should be changed to keep less money in reserve and allow more borrowing.

Sims said the answers to those questions wouldn't be known for months. The board hasn't been asked to consider changing the financial plan yet, he said.

The Sound Transit package that voters approved in 1996 called for a 21-mile light-rail line from SeaTac to the U District by 2006. In late 2000, the agency revealed that project was three years behind schedule and $1.1 billion over budget, in part because of the unanticipated high cost of digging a tunnel to the U District.

Last fall, the board scaled back the project to 14 miles, from Tukwila to downtown Seattle. But it vowed to reach the U District someday and ordered agency staff members to look into new alignments and financing options.

Officials acknowledged the $368 million that remained to go north wasn't enough to build anything.

Since then the board has approved study of two possible new routes. One would cross the Lake Washington Ship Canal in a tunnel near Montlake, the other in a tunnel near the University Bridge.

Preliminary agency analysis suggests both could be considerably cheaper to build than the original route. The tunnels wouldn't have to be as deep, so stations in the U District could be built closer to the surface using less-expensive technology.

No cost estimates are available, however.

Sims said Sound Transit hoped to leverage the $368 million it already has to obtain federal money to reach the U District. But the agency still is trying to recover $500 million in federal funding for the downtown-to-Tukwila link that was placed on hold last year when Sound Transit's money troubles came to light.

Changing the agency's financial plan also could have the effect of freeing more money to extend light rail north. An outside project-review committee headed by former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer labeled the existing plan "unnecessarily conservative" in a report last year, charging it constrained Sound Transit's ability to build.

The report singled out the agency's policy of not allowing the ratio between net revenues and debt service to fall below 1.3-to-1 in any year. That's much higher than the "debt coverage ratio" most private companies maintain, Sims and Earl said yesterday.

Adopting a lower ratio would allow Sound Transit to borrow more.

In an address to the City Club yesterday, Sims unveiled detailed expectations for the agency for the year. They include groundbreaking on light rail during the third quarter, a third daily Sounder commuter-rail train between Seattle and Tacoma this fall, and a new Bellevue Transit Center opening in June.

Sims said he expected Sound Transit would be judged by how well it met those deadlines. "Performance beats criticism every single time," he said.

The milestones also are part of a campaign to show the public Sound Transit has changed, Sims added. "We're not talking about the same agency you had a year ago."

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

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