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Thursday, November 14, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Sims should pull the plug on 'lite'-rail project

Special to The Times

Circumstances today present a major opportunity for someone to provide the bold leadership our community so desperately needs. That someone is Ron Sims.

As both King County executive and chairman of the Sound Transit board, Sims is in the strongest position to address the fact that the Link Light Rail project, as promised to voters, cannot be done.

He should fully disclose Link Light Rail's current fiscal condition and realistically address its limitations.

Sound Transit's own data, particularly its 2002 financial plan, produces no evidence that the agency can fund any extensions of the initial 14-mile segment of light rail, either north or south, in the next 20 years. By Sound Transit's own estimates, after shelling out $2.9 billion for this "initial" segment, we'll be left stranded in Rainier Valley, completely out of gas. For at least two decades.

In 1996, voters approved Sound Transit's plan to build a Link Light Rail that would stretch from the University District to Capitol Hill, First Hill, downtown Seattle, through Rainier Valley and on to Sea-Tac Airport. All 21 miles were to be built for $2.3 billion.

The agency maintains it is still firmly committed to completing the full project. Yet, if it's going to cost $2.9 billion for just the one 14-mile segment, the cheapest portion with only one-third the riders, very significant additional funding will be needed to complete the 21-mile system.

Sound Transit claims no tax increases will be necessary, that it can do it with existing revenue. OK, so where then is the money going to come from? Sound Transit's own financial planning reports include no funding plan or plausible funding sources for this completion.

If Sound Transit intends to use East King County's resources, in violation of its promises to voters, it should make its position clear. Or, if it intends to ask for another massive, voter-approved tax increase, it should make its position clear. Because, as of now, there is no credible relationship between Sound Transit's announced plans to extend Link Light Rail north and south, and its financial capacity to do so.

At every turn, Sound Transit has failed at the Link Light Rail effort. Sure, everyone is feeling desperate to "do something" about transportation and congestion. But throwing good money after bad is not just "doing something," it's doing something dumb.

The defeat of Referendum 51 shows that the public is seeking smarter transportation solutions that will use public resources prudently. Voters soundly refused to approve massive projects that couldn't project full funding adequate to finish what they proposed to start. That is exactly the place where Sound Transit now finds itself. With its projected cost overruns so overwhelming that the job can't be completed, do we allow Sound Transit to blow everything on the cheapest, least-productive segment that will only transport one third of the capacity promised voters?

The position of the Downtown Seattle Association is sensible. Sound Transit needs a workable plan to complete its light-rail project at least from Sea-Tac to Northgate and needs to demonstrate sufficient funding to do so. Meanwhile, don't proceed on the project and don't close the downtown bus tunnel for conversion to bus-rail.

Furthermore, until such reasonable conditions are met, there should be no federal construction grant agreement, because that agreement will legally bind Sound Transit to completion of the 14-mile segment.

We must stop before taking on such an obligation because if the 14 miles south from the state Convention and Trade Center is all that will be built, why build at all? We should, instead, free up those financial resources to make way for a better solution, one that will have an honest, significant impact on reducing traffic congestion. Sims could lead such an effort.

I know this is asking Sims to make an abrupt turn from his current support of light rail, but a precedent exists. Remember the "Save the Market" initiative in 1971? Mayor Wes Uhlman strongly opposed it, as did all nine members of the City Council and much of the downtown business establishment. They wanted to "redevelop" the Pike Place Market area with parking garages, luxury hotels and a convention center.

When the initiative passed, Uhlman's first reaction was to retaliate. But after reflecting on what was best for the community, he reconsidered.

Uhlman did an abrupt turn and threw himself and his administration into helping to make a success of the market and the new historic district. Though credit for saving the market rightly goes to Victor Steinbrueck, Friends of the Market and their allies, the fact is that the well-executed restoration of the market and the success of the new historic district was carried out by the Uhlman administration. That was a splendid example of civic leadership.

Sims has the same opportunity to act today as Uhlman had in 1971. Everyone knows that it is not comfortable to change direction when you're under the direct glare of the public eye. But leadership is not about doing "something." It is about doing the right thing. This is the time that Sims can leave his own footprint in the history of Seattle and King County.

Booth Gardner is former governor of Washington and currently consults on public-policy issues such as education, transportation and health.

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