Wednesday, July 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New woes for light-rail funding

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Just days after the Bush administration tentatively approved a $500 million funding agreement for a proposed light-rail line serving the Seattle area, the project has run into another potential roadblock.

An influential member of Congress raised concerns about Sound Transit's quest for $500 million in federal funds, saying officials had not answered important questions about how the $2.5 billion project will be paid for.

In a letter this week, Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., criticized federal transit officials for endorsing the light-rail project last Friday without answering a host of questions about local funding and other issues.

Istook is chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee that has jurisdiction over transportation projects. His concerns mirror those of Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash., a political ally who also has questioned the Sound Transit project.

Dunn, of Bellevue, said Wednesday that she remains unconvinced that the light-rail line would relieve traffic congestion on Interstate 5 as promised. She also said she worried that the project could lose an important source of local funding, depending on the outcome of a legal challenge to Initiative 776, the Tim Eyman-sponsored measure that would eliminate motor-vehicle fees and taxes above a flat $30 fee. Washington state voters approved the measure in November, but a King County Superior Court judge later ruled it unconstitutional and the matter is now pending before the state Supreme Court.

If the initiative is upheld, it could cause a fiscal crisis for Sound Transit, forcing the reduction or even elimination of several projects important to her constituents on the east side of Lake Washington, Dunn said.

"If there is a problem with I-776 and they lose a huge chunk of funding, the place they will go (for money) is to my district or south (King) County," she said.

In an audit of the project last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general reported that Sound Transit's cost estimates and schedule are reasonable. But the report said Sound Transit should approve a backup plan in case I-776 is upheld in court.

In his letter to the Federal Transit Administration, Istook said he was concerned that Sound Transit has not approved such a plan — and that the FTA had not required one as part of its endorsement.

"For a project costing $174 million per rail mile, and seeking a half-billion dollars of federal funding, a contingency of this magnitude must be covered, as recommended in the IG's report," he wrote.

In response to Istook's letter, Sound Transit scheduled a special meeting of its board of directors for tomorrow. A spokesman said the board would address Istook's concerns. King County Executive Ron Sims, chairman of Sound Transit's board, said last week that the board would approve a backup funding plan and make other changes requested by the inspector general.

A resolution expected to be approved tomorrow "will make it clear that even without (car tab fees) Sound Transit has sufficient funds to complete the initial light-rail segment and maintain existing express bus, Sounder and Tacoma Link service, and gradually increase such service over time," said Lee Somerstein, a spokesman for the transit agency.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said Dunn was approaching Sound Transit from the wrong perspective. If she believes reduced funding would hurt her constituents in Seattle's eastside suburbs, then Dunn should be doing everything she can to ensure that Sound Transit gets its full share of federal dollars, Dicks said.

"How does it help her to cut off $500 million in federal funding. That's what I don't understand," Dicks said. "We're better off with federal money than without it, that's for sure."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Istook's letter ultimately may help Sound Transit, by forcing officials to address his concerns.

"I think (Istook) has charted a path forward," Murray said.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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