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Friday, July 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light rail clears a hurdle in D.C.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

Sound Transit's light-rail project


What it is: A 14-mile line running from Westlake Center in downtown Seattle to Tukwila

Cost: $2.5 billion, plus $675 million in interest

Estimated completion: 2009

WASHINGTON — The House Appropriations Committee approved $15 million for Seattle's light rail yesterday — one-fifth of the amount requested by President Bush and light-rail supporters but enough to keep the project moving through Congress.

The news brought relief to light-rail advocates, who were worried Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., chairman of the panel's transportation-spending subcommittee, wouldn't give the rail system a dime.

Istook tempered his enthusiasm for the project. "The funding in this bill — the $15 million — should not be seen as a blanket endorsement of the project," he said. "It should be seen as a commitment to work constructively."

With the dollars came more fissures in the state's congressional delegation.

Yesterday, in his first public statements casting doubt on the light-rail project, Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, threatened to introduce an amendment that would have put conditions on Sound Transit, the regional agency heading up the project, before funding is released.

He did not, instead taking the opportunity at yesterday's Appropriations Committee meeting to echo concerns raised by Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, who has emerged as an active opponent of the rail system in recent weeks.

"I am worried ... about the potential for this project to be a dark black hole of money that will then have a negative impact on other transportation projects in our state," Nethercutt said.

"I am not convinced at this point that this is the right thing for Washington state or Seattle," he later added.

The 14-mile light-rail line would connect downtown Seattle to Tukwila, just shy of the airport.

Earlier this month, Congress began a review of an agreement reached with federal transportation officials to provide a total grant of $500 million to Sound Transit. The $15 million would be part of that grant.

Sound Transit expects to have 42,000 riders by 2020, including 16,000 new transit riders. Estimated cost: $2.5 billion.

But Istook and other critics are concerned that 26,000 of the riders would come from bus users, making the price tag for each new rider $150,000.

And they are concerned that Sound Transit won't be able to come up with its share of the project funds if the Washington state Supreme Court rules that Tim Eyman's Initiative 776 caps a car-tab tax.

Such a move would cost Sound Transit $704 million in cash and bonding authority, including $293 million in north and south King County, where the light-rail line would be located. Dunn, in particular, is worried that her Eastside constituents could wind up paying cost overruns on a project that doesn't benefit their area. Sound Transit has pledged to use money raised on the Eastside exclusively on Eastside projects.

To address critics' concerns, the spending bill requires Sound Transit to make a "formal and binding" commitment to find the money if the state Supreme Court upholds I-776. The agency also must maintain the same levels of existing transit services, such as the Sounder commuter-rail line, before the federal grant agreement is approved.

Sound Transit Board Chairman Ron Sims said the agency is providing information to Congress and hopes to satisfy concerns as it works toward approval of the grant agreement.

With $15 million in the bill, he was pleased. "I have a smile on my face, and I don't know why I should take it off."

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, and Nethercutt had a testier morning. At the committee session, Dicks praised the approach but said he wished it was more than $15 million. The Bush administration had proposed $75 million.

Shortly after, Nethercutt stood up to raise his concerns and suggested other transportation projects be considered, such as double-decking the freeway or adding more bus lanes. "I am not convinced that this is the right thing to do."

At times trying to talk over his colleague from Eastern Washington, Dicks said that the project was one of two nationwide to be "highly recommended" by the Bush administration and should be a model for the country.

"Clearly, the Bush administration thought it was very, very important," Dicks told Nethercutt, getting chuckles from the audience.

They were both gaveled quiet, and the committee moved on. Despite Nethercutt's misgivings, he voted for the $15 million allocation, as did Dicks.

Afterward, Dicks, a tall burly man, bent at the knees to get eye-level with reporters to make his argument that taking $500 million away from light rail may jeopardize transit in the entire region. "Duh," he said, pointing his finger to his right temple, as if pointing a gun.

He called double-decking the freeway "ridiculous." "You'd have to shut down I-5 for a decade," he said. "That's it? That's all they've got in their playbook?"

The spending bill now goes to the full House for a vote. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the senior Democrat on the transportation-spending panel and a light-rail supporter, hopes to increase the funding level in a Senate version of the bill to improve her position going into a House-Senate conference committee later this year.

Dunn's spokeswoman Danielle Holland said the congresswoman doesn't intend to introduce any amendments to kill the funding when the full House considers the transportation bill. The requirements outlined in the bill satisfied her concerns.

Nethercutt's spokeswoman April Gentry said he, too, was satisfied with the bill's language. The state's other congressional Republican, Richard "Doc" Hastings, R-Pasco, has not taken a position on the project.

Katherine Pfleger: 206-464-2772 or kpfleger@seattletimes.com

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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