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

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Airport may not get light rail

Seattle Times business reporter

Holding pattern


Port of Seattle staff are putting about $580 million worth of Sea-Tac airport projects on hold until it's clear whether Southwest Airlines will move out. Below are the major projects and the cost to complete them:

Rental-car facility: $230 million

North Expressway relocation (which light rail would run along): $85 million

Noise-abatement work (Burien, SeaTac, mobile-home parks): $65 million

Airport-maintenance facility: $42 million

In a move that could delay or scuttle efforts to connect Sound Transit's light-rail line to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the Port of Seattle said yesterday it is putting about $580 million in airport-expansion projects on hold until it knows whether Southwest Airlines will decamp to Boeing Field.

Airport Director Mark Reis said that until Southwest's prospects are clearer, the Port should halt new work on a wide range of projects, including repositioning the expressway approaching the airport, which would have light-rail tracks down the center.

That would mean Sound Transit "doesn't make it here to Sea-Tac," Reis told Port commissioners. "Without Southwest, we don't know when we'll need the roadway."

By delaying work for the light-rail line's endpoint, the Port would threaten a project championed by County Executive Ron Sims — who is also leading the county's effort to accommodate Southwest at Boeing Field.

Attempts to reach Sims and his spokeswoman last night were unsuccessful.

Deferring the Sea-Tac projects also would mean travelers would have to do without new restrooms and would have trouble finding a parking spot, Reis said. He added that airport concessionaires would have fewer customers, and the region would have trouble attracting new Asian and European routes.

Dallas-based Southwest said last week it wants to build a new terminal at Boeing Field and run up to 85 daily flights there, compared with 38 now at Sea-Tac, to avoid the cost of Sea-Tac's $4.2 billion, 10-year expansion. Southwest said it can't offer low fares without moving.

Reis estimated that the airport could lose a total of 170 flights a day if Southwest left, because Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air have said together they would move an equal number of flights to Boeing Field to compete with Southwest.

"So the domino of Southwest leaving would be stalling Sound Transit," among other effects, Port Commissioner Paige Miller said. "We've heard people say 'What's the big deal?' It's a profound impact on this airport and this region."

Sound Transit communications director Ric Ilgenfritz said yesterday that the agency hadn't seen the Port's proposed delays. "Our board has adopted a scope and a schedule and a budget. We will continue to proceed with that unless they tell us otherwise," he said.

The list Reis presented yesterday recommended delaying a $230 million facility for rental cars, a $42 million maintenance facility, $65 million in noise-reduction projects in Burien and elsewhere, and other items. The rental-car project would free space in the airport parking garage. Without it, Reis said, the garage could get crowded in coming years.

The Port staff drew up the list of projects it is suspending and presented them to the commission yesterday.

Reis said the Port would continue designing some of the projects, but it wouldn't start new work while Southwest's future is uncertain.

The commission could defer or cancel the projects during budget sessions in October, if it became clear Southwest was leaving, he said.

Port staff and commissioners also challenged Southwest's allegations that the Port has allowed cost overruns in the 10-year airport expansion and that Southwest didn't know about the changes.

Reis said most of the $2.6 billion "first phase" of Sea-Tac expansion had been brought in on budget.

The cost of the third runway, however, rose to $1.1 billion from $773 million because of delays, litigation and environmental costs that were well-publicized.

He also said Southwest's cost to operate at Sea-Tac would increase by just $1.06 per passenger between now and 2009, when the full cost of the expansion hits the airlines.

"Is it really about $1?" Port Chief Mic Dinsmore said. "Probably not."

Sea-Tac costs now amount to more than $10 per passenger. Southwest has said it doesn't trust the Port's projections.

The airline's national average cost is below $5 per passenger.

Commissioner Alec Fisken said Southwest's proposal could hardly have come as a surprise to the Port.

"We've known for a couple of years that this was possible," he said.

Reis said he had heard "rumors" of the plan to move but that Southwest had declined to discuss it. Last October, Reis said, he and Dinsmore flew to Dallas to brief Southwest officials on efforts to cut Sea-Tac costs.

Afterward, he said, when Southwest officials reacted positively, he asked, "Wouldn't now be a good time to take Boeing Field off the table?"

He said Southwest wouldn't answer the question.

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times reporter Eric Pryne contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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