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Wednesday, July 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sound Transit to vote on dropping First Hill

Seattle Times staff reporter

As Sound Transit nears a decision on scrubbing its proposed First Hill light-rail station, some of the station's biggest supporters are questioning whether cancellation would save enough money to achieve the goal many rail backers seek.

"They're trying to get to the University of Washington [without raising taxes]," Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver, a Sound Transit board member, said yesterday. "I don't think we can get there, even without First Hill."

"I think it's questionable," said state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, whose district includes First Hill.

The Sound Transit board is to vote tomorrow on whether to drop First Hill from its proposed light-rail extension from downtown Seattle to Northgate. Some have suggested the savings — $350 million — could be enough to get the underground line built as far north as Husky Stadium without seeking more tax money.

"We're encouraged," Sound Transit communications director Ric Ilgenfritz said of that possibility. "We think there may be a path. ... It's close, but by no means certain."

But McIver said that, at a closed briefing last month, Sound Transit staff members said that, even without the First Hill station, an additional $200 million still would be needed to reach Husky Stadium — and that figure assumed more borrowing than agency policies now allow.

With a First Hill station, McIver added, Sound Transit staff indicated light rail would require a voter-approved 0.2 percentage-point sales-tax increase to reach Husky Stadium, or a 0.4 or 0.5 percentage-point increase to get to Northgate.

Ilgenfritz wouldn't discuss McIver's numbers, saying more details on financing would be released soon.

"If they kill First Hill, I'm off the train," said Murray, a longtime Sound Transit backer who chairs the state House Transportation Committee. Murray said he would travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby against federal grants Sound Transit needs to build the northern extension.

Sound Transit has been looking for a way to build light rail north since 2001, when cost overruns forced it to scale back its proposed 21-mile rail line from the University District to SeaTac to a 14-mile line with a northern terminus downtown.

The agency broke ground on that leg two years ago.

First Hill — home to Seattle University, two major hospitals, 22,000 jobs and 6,000 households — has been part of the proposed northern alignment since 1996. A year ago, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said it would be short-sighted to not build there.

The station surfaced as a serious target for cost-cutting this spring, and the agency's staff is expected to formally recommend cancellation today.

In a presentation to the board this month, Sound Transit staff members said eliminating First Hill would trim the price of the downtown-Husky Stadium segment to $1.5 billion from $1.85 billion and shave six months off the construction schedule.

More important, they said, it would avoid risks that could push project costs even higher and the schedule back even further.

Martin Schachenmayr, project-control manager, said the 210-foot-deep station would require complex, relatively untested excavation techniques. Few contractors do such work, he said, and that could reduce competition and drive up costs.

Those and other risks prompted a consultant who managed work on the Interstate 90 tunnel through Mount Baker Ridge and the downtown Seattle bus tunnel to recommend the First Hill station be scrapped.

McIver said First Hill's housing and employment density warrant light-rail service.

At least six of the other eight Seattle City Council members agree.

Seattle University, Swedish Medical Center and Virginia Mason Medical Center have sent letters supporting the station. After years of neutrality, the First Hill Community Council recently decided to support the station, President Debby Gibby said.

If the Sound Transit board excludes First Hill, "it's going to be the biggest mistake of their lives," Gibby said.

But, looking ahead to tomorrow's vote, "I think it looks kind of bleak for us," McIver said.

Spokesmen for Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims, both Sound Transit board members, said their bosses still were studying the issue. Metropolitan King County Councilman Dwight Pelz, another board member who is running against McIver for City Council, would not discuss the vote.

McIver suggested Sound Transit consider other station sites and construction methods, and postpone the First Hill decision until next year. But Ilgenfritz said that, if the agency doesn't submit a grant application to the Federal Transit Administration by Aug. 15, completing the line north from downtown could slip a year, from 2016 to 2017.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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