Wednesday, March 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Extending light rail to Northgate may cost $2 billion

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sound Transit has released its preliminary cost figures to build future light-rail lines to the University District and Northgate — and agency officials say the numbers are lower than what critics have conjectured.

The seven-mile north extension appears to require somewhere around $2 billion in today's dollars, give or take a few hundred million, if early projections pan out.

With that line, plus the planned $2.5 billion, 14-mile initial route from Seattle's Convention Place to Tukwila, and a two-mile airport segment, the agency is preparing to build what would be one of the most expensive light-rail systems in America.

But Sound Transit's studies predict that a full 24-mile system from Northgate to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport would attract more than 150,000 trips a day by 2030, higher than most other cities.

Sound Transit grudgingly released some early construction estimates yesterday under pressure from the media; lobbyist Jamie Durkan, who filed a lawsuit seeking the information; and light-rail opponents, who say the overall project costs are excessive. Sound Transit said it wanted to wait until April or May to release the figures, in conjunction with an environmental-impact report.

Engineers believe they can save money by avoiding a deep tunnel beneath Portage Bay. A passage under either the Montlake Cut or near the University Bridge would be shallower. Shallow tunneling allows a campus station to be built closer to the surface, instead of 180 to 200 feet deep.

The report also says a tunnel that is bored through densely populated Capitol Hill is cheaper than an alternative "cut and cover" tunnel under Eastlake Avenue East.

Yesterday's figures include construction costs only, and are based on "5 percent engineering." They do not include trains or so-called soft costs such as administrative overhead, engineering and inflation, which might add 25 to 30 percent, said Ahmad Fazel, Link light-rail director. Staffers said more work needs to be done, including test drilling west of Portage Bay to determine whether there are underground boulders that would hinder tunnel work.

Depending on the number of stations, $850 million to $1.3 billion would be required to dig a tunnel from downtown to the University District, plus another $400 million to $500 million to reach Northgate on a combination of surface, elevated and underground tracks. Those figures, plus the soft costs, would bring the project close to $2 billion.

Board member Dwight Pelz, a Metropolitan King County councilman from southeast Seattle, said the new numbers would help him make the case to include $1 billion for light rail in a regional transportation measure that may go to the voters.

"I've said all along Sound Transit is regaining the upper hand as far as its arguments about light rail," he said, adding that he thought the regional package would be more likely to pass with light rail included.

The agency's board of directors will choose a preferred route later this year and more definitive numbers are due in 2004.

The agency's opponents, drawing on Bellevue engineer Jim MacIsaac's review of previous Sound Transit cost figures for the entire system, have speculated that the price tag to reach Northgate is $3.5 billion.

Former Sound Transit board member Rob McKenna, a county councilman from Bellevue, predicted that by the time bond debt and inflation are factored in, the north line would approach that amount.

"I'm not seeing that they're showing a significantly cheaper way to go," he said.

"I believe they have found something that right now, based on preliminary 5 percent engineering, is saving a few hundred million dollars. But ... generally their capital projects, not just rail but things like park-and-ride garages, have come in over budget. ... And even if they've found a way to get to Northeast 45th a few hundred million cheaper, there's a huge gap between the resources and the project costs," McKenna said.

The Eastlake route is being promoted by billionaire Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc., which is redeveloping South Lake Union.

It doesn't appear to save money, though. There are potential conflicts with pilings that support Interstate 5, staffers said, and a yet-unreleased draft environmental-impact statement raises concerns about unstable slopes nearby.

For state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who lives on Capitol Hill, the new information appears to support his long-held view that the optimal route is one that serves the hill, home of the highest population density in the state.

Still unknown, he said, is "how are we going to finance this?"

Sound Transit financial projections through 2016 do not show enough money in its Seattle-area fund to build the line, though federal grants might be available. There could also be loans of unspent money from Sound Transit's Eastside fund.

Board Chairman Ron Sims, the King County executive, said yesterday he remains "very confident" about reaching the U District without a tax increase.

Monorail activist Peter Sherwin said the flap over estimates is a distraction from the broader question of whether light rail, more than $1 billion costlier than what voters were promised in 1996, is the right choice.

"It's disappointing that it's taken seven years to get to this point," he said. "The debate should be over producing the best transit system, and it's become a food fight about how much over budget we are, and the details of the existing plan."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or


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