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Thursday, January 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Now they're getting 'somewhere': Light-rail to reach airport

Seattle Times staff reporter

Money for the train


Residents in the urban portions of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties fund Sound Transit primarily through an annual car-tab tax of $30 per $10,000 of vehicle value; and a general sales tax of 0.4 percent. The agency also collects a 0.8 percent tax on car rentals.

Sound Transit's latest draft financial plan anticipates total spending of $6.9 billion for providing express buses, park-and-ride lots, freeway ramps for high-occupancy vehicles, commuter rail, light rail and streetcars in the three counties between 1997 and 2009. Sound Transit expects to receive $920 million in federal grants.

Seeking to shed its "line to nowhere" label, Sound Transit yesterday signed an agreement with the Port of Seattle to put a future light-rail station at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Without it, trains arriving from downtown Seattle would have to terminate at South 154th Street in Tukwila, and travelers would have to transfer to the airport on shuttle buses. An airport rail station will mean riders could disembark near the parking garage, then head into the terminal on conveyor walkways.

The lack of an airport station has eroded public confidence in the light-rail project. In 1996, urban Puget Sound-area voters approved a plan that called for a 21-mile line from the University District to Sea-Tac. In 2001, the project was scaled back to 14 miles after Sound Transit said it was over budget and behind schedule.

"I can say now that the Link light rail is a 'system to somewhere,' and that somewhere is the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport," Ron Sims, Sound Transit chairman and King County executive, said at a news conference yesterday.

Officials would not speculate on what the airport link will cost, but if expenses per mile for the rest of the Central Link project are a benchmark, a 1.6-mile airport extension could be in the $200 million to $300 million range.

Sims said the airport extension can be funded without federal grants or new voter-approved taxes. "This is one we can do within the revenues that voters have authorized," he said, but he did not elaborate.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said adding the airport link means that Sound Transit taxes would continue to be levied until 2011 at current rates, instead of the taxes decreasing after 2009 when the current round of regional projects — Sounder commuter rail, the Tukwila light-rail section and express buses — is completed.

Existing funds for South King County projects will be nearly exhausted by then, leaving only $47 million, according to Sound Transit's latest draft financial plan.

The original transit package called for a 10-year series of projects that included a light-rail line from the University District to just south of the airport — for only $1.7 billion. But last fall, a King County Superior Court judge ruled that despite higher costs, Sound Transit has the power to build light rail in smaller segments and charge taxes for as long as needed to pay for its projects.

The airport is an important light-rail destination because it is a bustling city in its own right. About 18,000 employees and 100,000 visitors go there on an average day, said Port of Seattle Commissioner Pat Davis.

The latest plan calls for tracks running west of the Washington Memorial Park Cemetery, to be elevated over roadways. Construction would coincide with a new expressway the port is building and the proposed north expansion of the airport terminal.

Negotiations started a year ago. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks threw the airline industry and airport-growth plans into confusion, and new security concerns made a train station inside the terminal building unlikely.

And a light-rail station at the terminal would have required impossible turns in the rail line, Mic Dinsmore, chief executive of the Port, said yesterday.

Patrick said Sound Transit actually prefers to build a station outside the airport terminal, because it could be finished by 2011 even if the airport's north terminal expansion is delayed.

Yesterday's signing ceremony was one in a series of political and public-relations moves Sound Transit has sought to improve its image and begin construction this year on the $2.5 billion, 14-mile initial segment from Convention Place in downtown Seattle to Tukwila. This spring, federal inspectors and Congress will decide whether to release $409 million in federal money needed for the project.

But some people, including elected officials, express-bus advocates and regional monorail supporters, have endorsed scrapping light rail because of the high costs and lack of a clear strategy and the money to proceed north from Convention Place to the University District and Northgate. Former Gov. Booth Gardner has called for an end to Central Link, and he will debate Sims at a sold-out luncheon in downtown Seattle today.

Yesterday's agreement on the airport station instructs the Port to include light rail in its expansion planning and states that Sound Transit has committed $10 million to design the line there.

A leading opponent of light rail, Maggi Fimia of Citizens for Effective Transportation Alternatives, said, "they are admitting, with great fanfare, that they didn't even have a solid agreement with the Port of Seattle to site a station at the airport in the first place."

A better option than light rail, she said, would be for Metro Transit to add more-frequent bus runs on its 194 route from downtown Seattle to the airport.

John Niles, a transit consultant and express-bus advocate, said the biggest problem with light rail is "the money. ... They're spending all their money on the initial segment."

But the promise of an airport stop should help Sound Transit's credibility if voters are asked to raise taxes for extensions to Northgate, said Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac. Patterson has opposed putting light-rail money into a regional transportation-funding ballot measure later this year because she fears public distrust of Sound Transit might sink the entire package.

"I'm going to keep an open mind now," Patterson said. "It may be that this announcement will empower Sound Transit and give hope to the public for Sound Transit's success, and it may not be seen as such a burden."

In related news, Gov. Gary Locke this week encouraged Sound Transit to find a way to serve Southcenter, which is not on the light-rail route. He said be believes including Southcenter would enhance public acceptance and ridership.

Last year, the Tukwila City Council rejected a route agreement with Sound Transit because the line would bypass Southcenter, a regional shopping mall close to Sounder trains, Amtrak and a bus station. But the Federal Transit Administration said afterward that the city's approval was not needed.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

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