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Monday, March 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Sound Transit considers tunnel for north line

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sound Transit officials have kept a lid on their cost estimates to bring light rail to the University District and Northgate, but an internal report provides an important clue — under the routes being studied, the line would be tunneled at least as far north as Ravenna Boulevard.

And though the route has yet to be chosen, the agency hopes to start construction as early as 2006 and finish by 2012.

The need for a four-mile tunnel, typically the priciest type of construction, raises questions about whether the agency can afford to keep its promise, made to voters in 1996, for light rail to reach the university and beyond.

One option is a cut-and-cover tunnel beneath Eastlake Avenue East, which would serve the city's biotechnology district as well as the redevelopment by Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc. Another is a bored tunnel with stops near Seattle University and in the heart of Capitol Hill, to reach densely populated neighborhoods.

The board is scheduled to choose a preferred route in July.

Current plans are to start work on a $2.5 billion, 14-mile "initial segment" from downtown Seattle to Tukwila later this year — provided the project survives review by federal inspectors and Congress to receive a $500 million Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant.

That line would be the easy part — it requires only a one-mile tunnel through Beacon Hill. Critics say it will take another $2.5 billion or more to tunnel to the U District.

But transit advocates say the system would be cheaper than adding new freeway lanes. If taxpayers dig deep enough to extend light rail to Northgate, and to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to the south, they say, the ridership for a 24-mile system would grow to a relatively high 124,000 daily trips.

King County Executive Ron Sims, the Sound Transit board chairman, has said the University District link can be completed without new taxes, but he has yet to outline a funding strategy.

Attempts to save money by bridging the Lake Washington Ship Canal or running partly on surface streets have been dropped, according to a preliminary draft of an environmental-impact statement, dated Sept. 12, which has been leaked to The Seattle Times.

Bridging the Ship Canal was rejected early last year because a high-level bridge would be "cost-prohibitive," while a low or mid-level bridge would require frequent openings for water traffic, wreaking havoc with train schedules, said Sound Transit communications director Ric Ilgenfritz.

For weeks, Sound Transit has been pressured to disclose its north-line cost estimates, originally scheduled to be released last year.

A public-records lawsuit to obtain light-rail cost information has been filed by Martin Durkan, a lobbyist for Southcenter businesses and the city of Tukwila, who has been angry that the first segment misses Southcenter. A court hearing is scheduled tomorrow.

State Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, accused the agency of stonewalling on cost figures until the legislative session is over.

Lawmakers are considering hostile bills to require that Sound Transit board members be publicly elected, or to put light rail to a public revote.

"That's information the public needs to know," he said. "The impression I've gotten from a number of sources is, they know what it is and they're afraid to tell people."

The Downtown Seattle Association has opposed starting even the first line until a route and funding plan exist to reach Northgate, while state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, a supporter, has said light rail is worthwhile only if it reaches north beyond downtown.

Sims has said he doesn't want to get burned by releasing premature figures and having them turn out wrong, as has occurred before in the agency's history.

A Jan. 25 memo by Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl, released to The Times through a public-document request, expresses her concern about how to present "our 5 percent level of engineering cost estimates" to the board and public, "since it is clearly too early in the project to know, decide, or even have any confidence in certain aspects of the project that drive costs."

Project opponent Jim MacIsaac, a Bellevue engineer, has guessed that a tunnel to the University District would cost at least $2.5 billion, and a Northgate line an additional $1 billion.

"What Sound Transit can't seem to countenance is that, in our circumstances — geology, topography, population density and distribution — there may be no good options for installing a conventional rail line," says rail critic Emory Bundy.

"At least, after many years of searching, none has been found. So, rather than face the facts, we're supposed to plunge ahead and trust that somehow, someway, it'll work out OK."

Because so much Sound Transit tax revenue is going into the initial 14 miles, a light-rail extension to the north would require new funding sources or a large amount of debt.

The agency's financial projections show that only $298 million would be left over in 2009 for the north line, and if current tax rates are extended to 2016, another $203 million would become available — not enough to reach the university without other funding sources or long-term debt.

One option would be to loan unspent money from Eastside transit funds to build Seattle light rail sooner. Some Eastsiders worry the cash wouldn't be paid back, although Sound Transit officials insist it would be.

The north line is a strong candidate for federal aid because of its high ridership potential, according to Rick Krochalis, regional administrator for the FTA. In addition, Metropolitan King County Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, a Sound Transit board member, has lobbied to include $1 billion for light rail in a possible regional transportation ballot measure.

State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald, also a board member, said the question isn't the cost to reach the university, but the price of doing nothing.

"Whatever the costs are, we have to talk about the 50- to 100-year significance of having this in place," he said. "There are some things we can't afford not to do."

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

Correction: Sound Transits board of directors voted during a public meeting in February 2002 to study only tunneled routes for future light rail service to the University District, and to drop further consideration of bridges. The article portrayed the tunnel decision as a new and unpublicized development.

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