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Friday, July 14, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sound Transit's board endorses light-rail link between Seattle, Eastside

Seattle Times staff reporters

Light-rail visions


Sound Transit is building its $2.7 billion Central Link project from Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. A future tunnel could continue north to Husky Stadium, if the federal government provides a requested $750 million grant on top of existing local taxes. But the agency hopes to extend light-rail lines much farther — if voters approve higher sales taxes for transit in 2007.

These are the three packages the Sound Transit board released for public review:

A "medium" scenario

Could stretch the line to Northgate, Bellevue and Kent, for a tax increase of 3 cents on a $10 purchase.

A "medium-high" scenario

Could reach Mountlake Terrace, Overlake and Federal Way, for 4 cents on a $10 purchase.

A "high" scenario

Favored by transit board Chairman John Ladenburg, could fund tracks to Lynnwood, Redmond and the Port of Tacoma, for 5 cents tax on a $10 purchase.

Light rail is the best way to connect Seattle and Eastside communities, Sound Transit's board of directors agreed unanimously Thursday, adding momentum to a $3.9 billion project that would include the world's first transit rails on a floating bridge.

Board members said the electric trains would attract more travelers and move them faster than another option they dropped — a "bus-rapid-transit" system that travels on its own lanes and overpasses.

The Eastside line, crossing Lake Washington on the Interstate 90 floating bridge to Bellevue, the Microsoft campus and downtown Redmond, is the biggest piece of a huge regional transit package that voters will be asked to approve in 2007 — which also could extend light rail north to Lynnwood and south to the outskirts of Tacoma.

Current scenarios call for the longest possible light-rail line, with less money for long-distance commuter trains and express buses. The total for Snohomish, King and Pierce counties could reach $10.8 billion in today's dollars, of which $6.9 billion would come from new sales taxes, with the rest collected by prolonging existing sales and car taxes.

"We need to look at the cost of not doing it," said Mary-Alyce Burleigh, a Kirkland City Council member on the transit board. "The cost to economic growth, the cost in time, and the cost in congestion, if there is no other option. Light rail will give us a choice."

Higher taxes

Voters may be asked to double their current Sound Transit taxes. The transit board voted to drop its do-nothing and low-cost options, ensuring the request will be at least $75 a year for a typical household, or $125 per year if the full plan is approved.

Costs will become a political problem, said state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald. He and 17 elected officials from the three counties comprise the transit board. Sound Transit is close to halfway done constructing its first Seattle light-rail line from Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, part of a package voters passed a decade ago.

Earlier this year, the Legislature approved a bill requiring that for the transit plan to pass, voters must also pass a multi-billion dollar regional highway plan next year.

On top of that, King County Executive Ron Sims proposes a sales-tax boost this fall for more Metro bus service, while Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels is pushing a 20-year, $1.8 billion measure for city bridges, roads and trails.

"How do you bring to this process some discipline, as far as getting their aspirations on a diet?" MacDonald said outside the meeting room.

He excused himself from the vote, on orders from Gov. Christine Gregoire, so the state could remain neutral in an upcoming study of how rail would affect Interstate 90 operations.

Bellevue's choices

The Eastside line would run through what are now the I-90 express lanes, across the floating bridge and Mercer Island, then north into downtown Bellevue. From there, it would run alongside Highway 520 to Microsoft's headquarters, ending in downtown Redmond.

The alignment could include either a downtown Bellevue tunnel, or cheaper elevated tracks for $400 million less.

Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger said the city is open to exploring the tunnel option, to avoid blocking downtown streets with tracks and columns.

"It has to be investigated carefully," Degginger said. "We can't afford to lose our right of ways."

While the city of Kirkland will not have a light-rail connection, Kirkland Councilwoman Burleigh said the city would still benefit.

"It would be wonderful to take a bus to the Bellevue light-rail station and go straight to the airport," Burleigh said. "There would be one less car on the road."

Project opponent John Niles, of the pro-bus Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, said the tracks will make traffic worse for buses, van pools and general traffic that doesn't go where the rail lines will go.

The coalition estimates that only 15 percent of downtown Bellevue commuters come from across the lake — and light rail doesn't match the housing and travel patterns of the majority from within the Eastside or Snohomish County.

Niles accused transit officials of avoiding a search for less-expensive ways to enhance the area's existing express-bus system that puts Sound Transit buses in freeway high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Sound Transit's communications director, Ric Ilgenfritz, replied that some light-rail passengers will ride beyond Bellevue, while others take connecting buses to light-rail stations, extending the line's usefulness.

A related proposal would squeeze new high-occupancy vehicle lanes into the existing shoulders of the bridge.

Thursday's decision comes before a state-created expert review panel confirms whether trains can run reliably on a floating bridge, and before the DOT finishes its study on how rail would affect the bridge.

"We're just highly disturbed by this bum's rush," Niles said.

Transit Chairman John Ladenburg defended the choice of light rail before all the information comes in. By focusing on one option, the agency can better explore the costs, alignment and other details, he said.

Going to voters

The city of Shoreline objected to some scenarios that would cut local projects — especially since light rail wouldn't reach Shoreline until 2022-27, said Mayor Robert Ransom.

He urged the board to fund two miles of lanes on Aurora Avenue North for buses and business access, which could be finished quickly. Burien asked that its proposed downtown parking garage not be dropped.

Ladenburg said none of about 63 possible projects has been eliminated. The tough choices about what to include are coming later this year, he said.

Next, Sound Transit will study where to build the light-rail tracks in the Eastside corridor, and will also ask for public comments on what rail, bus and park-and-ride projects should stay in the entire three-county package.

A draft environmental-impact study could be published by mid-2008, after voters have their say.

Lisa Chiu: (206) 464-3347 or lchiu@seattletimes.com.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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