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Sunday, September 1, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bumper to Bumper

Light rail's south end falls short — even for neighbors

Seattle Times staff reporter

In seven years, when Sound Transit's light-rail line is supposed to be finished, you won't be able to take it to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

But you will be able to lift weights, place bets, grab a pancake breakfast and pump gas. And then catch a shuttle to the airport.

It's one of Sound Transit's biggest embarrassments: The 14-mile line comes close to the airport, but not close enough.

Sound Transit will tell you the end of the line, in what's now an Ajax park-and-fly lot on busy South 154th Street, is a mile from the airport.

In fact, it's 2.3 miles from the lot to the front door of the United Airlines counter, the closest stop in the terminal.

That the $2.1 billion light-rail project won't reach the airport has been roundly criticized — even by Ajax and neighbors who stand to make a tidy sum catering to the end-of-the-line customers.

To Sound Transit it's a minor inconvenience. Airport travelers and employees will still be able to get to Sea-Tac, they'll just have to take a shuttle from the Ajax lot.

That's a problem, says Arthur Dumpis, general manager of Ajax, where the last light-rail station will be built.

"It's a train to nowhere," he said. "To stop here and bus people to the airport, families with baggage to load and unload, makes no sense."

Bob Comiskey, who agrees with Dumpis, said the station would probably be a boon to his McDonald's nearby, "but it's not the right thing for the city, not the right thing for the taxpayers. ... If you do it, do it the right way."

The sentiment was echoed by the managers of the Pancake Chef, Powerhouse Gym and Funsters Casino, across the street from Ajax.

"If anything, it will help business," said Brett Sisley, manager of the pancake restaurant. "But why come this far and not go to the airport?"

Barry McCulley, manager of the fitness center, said he often gets airport travelers stopping by to pump iron on their way to their flights, and he expects the Sound Transit terminal may increase business. But, like the others, he said it doesn't make sense not to connect the rail line with the airport.

Sound Transit had hoped to take the line to South 200th Street, with a stop at the airport. But high costs and increased security at the airport quashed those plans.

"We didn't have the financing to go further," said Lee Somerstein, spokesman for the rail line.

He said after the terrorist attacks last September, the Port of Seattle deferred plans for an expansion of the airport's north terminal, where the transit station was to have gone.

Somerstein could not say how much more it would cost to take the line to the airport, but with estimates of $100 million a mile, it would be at least an additional $200 million.

While there are no plans to put a light-rail stop at Sea-Tac, airport officials say a new alignment has been devised to get around the north-terminal delay should Sound Transit ever extend the line.

It would go from the Ajax lot along the west side of the Washington Memorial Park cemetery, along International Boulevard to about South 170th Street, where there would be a station and an airport building connecting to the airport parking garage.

A key question, however, is would people use the rail line to catch flights?

King County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, a critic of light rail, said he asked Sound Transit researchers to see what percentage of air travelers took trains in other major cities and found the number was only about 3 percent.

"It doesn't make much difference from ridership, but it's silly that it doesn't get to the airport," said McKenna. He said Sound Transit won't have the money to extend the line until at least 2015.

While air passengers might not ride the train, some of the 18,000 airport employees likely would.

"To be a modern rail system, you want to be connected to the airport," said Kevin Phelps, Tacoma deputy mayor and chairman of the Sound Transit board's finance committee. "While we recognize the number of airport travelers using it is not significant ... the airport is the second- or third-largest employment base in the area."

Norma Barnett works at the Arco station across from the Ajax lot and wonders if she'll ever see light rail running.

"I'm 68 years old," she said. "I'll see if it happens in my lifetime."

Bumper crop

Blowing bubbles. That's a favorite way some of you deal with the traffic jams that strangle our roads. When we asked how you cope, Michelle Meeker of Covington said she actually likes traffic jams. Short ones, at least.

"When I take my sons out for adventures, we have games we play only when the pace slows to urban crawl. I welcome the escape when the boys are asleep leaving me to my '80s tunes and inner thoughts. Lately we've noticed an uplifting trend. We've seen several drivers who use the time to indulge their inner child and blow bubbles while they wait."

Now Meeker carries a bottle of bubble soap for her next traffic jam.

To contact Bumper to Bumper, e-mail us at bumper@seattletimes.com or call Susan Gilmore at 206-464-2054.

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