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Saturday, March 23, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light rail's rating slips a bit, but Sound Transit still eligible for federal money

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sound Transit got some good news yesterday, but it might have been better.

The good news is that the agency's light-rail system got a rating of "recommended" from the Federal Transit Administration.

That means it is eligible for federal funding.

But the news could have been better, skeptics argued, because the light-rail project was once rated as "highly recommended" by the agency.

For Sound Transit backers, however, the rating was a positive event.

"This is a big step by the administration," said Ron Sims, King County executive and Sound Transit board chairman.

"It recognizes the progress we've made on the Central Link light-rail project over the past year. The ranking is a clear sign that we're moving forward once again," he said.

To Sound Transit skeptics, however, the rating really means more trouble for the project.

"This rating is really a downgrade... ," said Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna, a former Sound Transit board member who wasn't reappointed by Sims. "What this means is Link will be competing with a number of projects around the country that are highly recommended."

That same point was made by Maggi Fimia, a former county councilwoman and now a member of Sane Transit, which advocates other transportation improvements besides the light-rail project.

"Highly recommended projects take precedence over 'recommended,' " she said. "In other words, this simply makes them eligible to compete — it does not guarantee funding."

But Sims said only two projects in the country, in San Diego and Charlotte, N.C., got "highly recommended" ratings, and that Sound Transit was marked down largely on lower ridership figures expected as the scale of the project has been reduced.

Sound Transit, which was approved by voters in 1996, once planned to build a light-rail system from as far north as Northgate through Seattle to SeaTac.

The project has been trimmed, however, with the current plan calling for an initial segment that runs from downtown Seattle to South 154th Street in Tukwila.

It was this segment that got the recommended rating, based on a projected ridership of 42,000 passengers daily.

Sims noted that the rating represented a significant improvement from Sound Transit's situation a year ago, when the project was $1 billion over budget, construction schedules were slipping and the federal Department of Transportation's inspector general had raised new concerns about cost estimates and community consensus and had recommended that federal funding be put on hold.

Since then, Sound Transit has reorganized, cost and budget controls have been strengthened, and community outreach has been expanded, Sims said.

"This is not the same organization you saw a year ago," he said.

Sims said he expected further reviews would be completed this year and that a recommendation would be made by the federal transportation secretary to Congress for full federal funding by summer. Completion of the initial segment is expected around 2009.

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