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Tuesday, June 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sound Transit, county agree to bus-tunnel plan

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Metropolitan King County Council yesterday approved an agreement with Sound Transit that allows buses and light-rail trains to share the county's downtown Seattle bus tunnel.

The 7-6 vote followed party lines, with all Democrats supporting the deal and all Republicans opposing it.

Opponents of Sound Transit's proposed light-rail line, anticipating council approval, earlier had threatened to gather signatures to force a public vote on the agreement. They dropped that plan yesterday, saying they had learned the council's action wasn't subject to referendum after all.

In a related development, a key congressman has asked the same government investigators who ripped Sound Transit a year ago to take another look at the revised light-rail project, including the safety of joint bus-rail operations in the tunnel.

In a letter earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., who chairs the House transportation-appropriations subcommittee, also asked the inspector general for the federal Transportation Department to examine the project's cost, schedule and funding sources.

Sound Transit critics said Rogers' request was trouble for the agency. But a Sound Transit spokesman said Rogers' letter came as no surprise and shouldn't interfere with the agency's bid to get money for the project included in President Bush's next budget proposal.

The joint-use agreement for the bus tunnel that the County Council approved yesterday is an important milestone for Sound Transit as it seeks federal money to build a scaled-back, 14-mile line from downtown Seattle to Tukwila.

Sound Transit's board approved the arrangement last month. The Seattle City Council is expected to give its blessing next week.

County Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, who shepherded the agreement through the council, predicted the flap over the project would be forgotten once the line opens in 2009.

"Across America, virtually every city that has built a rail system enjoys that system so much that they have demanded it be expanded," he said.

But Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, said the agreement effectively converted the tunnel from a regional facility — most of the buses that now use it serve suburbia — to one that will benefit primarily Seattle.

The 1.3-mile bus tunnel now is used by 132 Metro buses each weekday between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., the busiest hour. The joint-use agreement anticipates the tunnel will close for retrofitting in 2007 and reopen two years later with service from 120 buses and 20 trains during the peak hour.

The county would retain ownership, with Sound Transit paying all of the debt service during the two-year closure and 40 percent of the debt service and operating expenses after the tunnel reopens.

The agreement also calls for more than $13 million for improvements to help keep traffic moving on downtown streets during the two years all buses are rerouted to the surface.

After the vote, opponents said they had dropped the idea of asking voters to override the council after learning from the county Prosecuting Attorney's Office that state law precluded such a referendum.

Deputy prosecutor Jeff Richard said that when the Legislature gave King County authority to take over Metro in the early 1990s, it assigned that power expressly to the county "legislative authority" — the council — not the county in general. The state Supreme Court has ruled in other cases that powers delegated specifically by state law to the council aren't subject to referendum, Richard said.

But opponents said Sound Transit wasn't in the clear yet. McKenna said Rogers' June 11 letter to the inspector general showed Congress still had questions about the project.

When Rogers asked the inspector general to investigate Sound Transit last year, it caused all kinds of problems for the agency. The inspector general issued an interim report in April 2001 that raised questions about Sound Transit's construction-cost estimates and the agency's ability to pay for a light-rail system.

At the time, Sound Transit still planned to build a 21-mile line from Seattle's University District to SeaTac.

The interim report recommended the agency not get any federal money until it proved its numbers were accurate and Congress had more time to review the proposal. The Federal Transit Administration later suspended an agreement to give Sound Transit $500 million for light rail and froze $50 million it already had appropriated.

The regional transit agency, which scaled back the project late last year, still is trying to get those funds restored.

The timing of Rogers' request actually is good news for Sound Transit, said Ric Ilgenfritz, the agency's communications chief. Had Rogers waited until the Federal Transit Administration completed its review of Sound Transit's funding application, the agency's bid for money in the fiscal 2004 federal budget might have been thrown off track, Ilgenfritz said.

But Sound Transit's critics said Rogers' letter is a victory for their side. "Congress is still very interested," said former County Councilwoman Maggi Fimia, a leader of the forces against light rail. "They're not going to just let this slide through."

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

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