A Milestone For Light Rail -- Regional Board Selects Station Sites, Alignment

When Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and King County Executive Ron Sims travel to Washington, D.C., Monday, they'll ask Uncle Sam to help finance something the Seattle region has talked about for nearly three decades: light rail.

By a vote of 18-0, the Sound Transit board yesterday selected an alignment and station locations for a $1.8 billion, 23-mile proposed light-rail route from SeaTac to the University District.

"For almost 30 years, this region has talked about the importance of following other great cities and building a rail system. We are now taking a big step to that dream," said Paul Miller, chairman of Sound Transit, just before the final votes were cast.

It was a milestone event that capped hundreds of community meetings and public hearings.

And on Monday, Schell and Sims, accompanied by local labor, business and environmental leaders, will ask the White House for millions of dollars to help pay for the mass-transit project.

While local leaders have had their hand out to federal bureaucrats before, Schell and Sims will have something new to show off to the Clinton administration: consensus.

Despite all the sound and fury surrounding the project, yesterday's meeting was surprisingly devoid of dramatics. Engineering and financial considerations winnowed many available options in recent months, leaving few surprises.

But that's not to say the Sound Transit board members didn't receive an earful during a public-comment period.

Eight of 37 speakers criticized the agency for selecting street-level rail through Rainier Valley instead of a tunnel.

George Curtis, a member of the pro-tunnel group Save Our Valley, said Sound Transit had "manufactured consent" for surface rail in the neighborhood. He promised to keep fighting.

"You don't have my consent, and you don't have the consent of the majority of the people in the valley," he told the board. "We'll see you in federal court. We'll see you on the streets. We are not going to let this go."

Another activist said Rainier Valley would be far more dangerous to pedestrians with light rail on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

"I want to tell the board that every child dead in our community is on your head," said the woman, to scattered applause.

Seven residents of Rainier Valley told the board they supported surface-level rail and considered it an economic boon for the neighborhood.

Other speakers called on Sound Transit to find an additional $415 million to extend the line to Northgate.

Going to Northgate is fiercely supported by downtown Seattle business groups who fear the approved plan would increase bus traffic on city streets while not providing alternatives for commuters heading east or north.

When it came time for her to speak, Kate Joncas, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, was subdued in her comments, instead emphasizing that her group was committed to working with Sound Transit.

The plan adopted yesterday offered no new specifics as to how the agency plans to come up with additional money to get to Northgate. Last month, the Sound Transit board announced it would seek state funds. Yesterday, board members said the lobbying effort could take years.

The board ordered Sound Transit staff members to study possible alignments and station locations in the Northgate and Roosevelt communities so the agency could select a final Northgate route by next spring, with the hope that financing would be in hand.

By December, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) may issue what's called a record of decision accepting yesterday's vote. The FTA would then give Sound Transit approval to finish final designs. The agency's engineering work is about 30 percent complete.

By January, Sound Transit may issue its first request for proposals from contractors wishing to work on the project. Tunneling under First Hill is set to begin after Christmas 2001; work in Rainier Valley won't begin until 2003.

The Sound Transit board had to cut about $200 million to get the project within its $1.8 billion budget. That was accomplished through a variety of cuts and deferments throughout the system.

Here is what the plan would do: A. University District

Sound Transit has not yet reached a deal with the University of Washington Board of Regents, but the plan calls for both U District stations to be built on campus.

Northeast 45th Street is the end of the line, at least for this phase of construction. The north entrance would be on the east side of 15th Avenue Northeast in the Burke Museum parking lot. The south entrance would be on another university-owned lot. The station would be 200 feet underground and accessible only by high-speed elevators.

Sound Transit would also provide widened sidewalks, lighting and landscaping along part of Northeast 43rd Street and 15th Avenue Northeast. B. Northeast Pacific Street

The north entrance would be located just south of Gould Hall on the west side of 15th Avenue Northeast, displacing several structures owned by UW. The south entrance would be on a slice of open space just south of Northeast Pacific Street. Sound Transit and UW have yet to agree on a plan to protect the physics and astronomy buildings from the noise and vibration of passing trains. C. Capitol Hill

There would be two station entrances on Broadway. The north entrance would be on the west side of Broadway at East John Street, at a U.S. Bank branch. The south station would displace a building owned by Seattle Central Community College.

The Sound Transit board decided to build crossover tracks between East John and East Thomas streets. That would enable trains to switch tracks for maintenance or emergencies.

The extension of construction to East Thomas Street would save about $17 million but was strongly opposed by local businesses. The board yesterday voted to develop a partnership with Broadway business owners to help lessen the effects of the light-rail line. D. First Hill

The east location would be at Boylston Avenue East and Madison Street, at a Wells Fargo Bank branch. The west location would displace Key Bank and U.S. Bank branches at Summit Avenue and Madison.

E. Downtown

The light-rail system would take over the existing Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, forcing buses to use city streets.

Downtown stations would be at Westlake, University Street, Pioneer Square and the International District. The Convention Place Station would not be converted for rail use, and King County would retain ownership of the station. The county might build a mixed-use, transit-oriented development on the site.

When the tunnel closes for retrofitting in 2004, there will be 500 buses downtown. When light-rail service begins in November 2006, there will be about 580 buses on city streets. F. Sodo

Sound Transit would defer construction of a street-level station at South Royal Brougham Way. The board also decided yesterday to defer a Beacon Hill station. An amendment was later passed that called for a partially built Beacon Hill station if construction could be done within budget. G. Southeast Seattle

To tunnel, or not to tunnel, that was the question in Rainier Valley. As expected, the board voted to build a surface-level system along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. Stations include South McClellan Street, South Edmunds Street, South Othello Street and South Henderson Street.

Construction of a Graham Street station would be deferred.

To make light rail safer, Martin Luther King Jr. Way South would have 19 intersections with traffic signals and nine pedestrian-crossing signals.

A community advisory panel would be established to make recommendations for a $50 million development fund to help ease the impacts of light rail in Rainier Valley. H. Tukwila

The board voted to select a route in the median of state Highway 99 through the heart of Tukwila. The move was strongly opposed by Tukwila city officials, who contend the route would destroy its long-held economic-development plans.

A compromise alternative emerged in recent weeks that would have placed the light-rail alignment along Interstate 5 and state Highway 518. Transit planners did not have enough time to thoroughly study the option, but the board approved an amendment to examine it further. The board could then approve the alternative alignment later on.

Tukwila Mayor John Rants greeted the compromise with muted enthusiasm.

"I have a heavy heart and much trepidation. We don't want to do battle. Let's, in good faith, go ahead with this study," he said. I. Maintenance yard

To be eligible for federal funding, Sound Transit must build a light-rail maintenance yard somewhere in the central part of the line. The board selected a site west of the former Rainier Brewery between South Forest Street, Airport Way South, South Hind Street and Seventh Avenue South. The yard would displace four businesses: Roadway Express trucking, Alaskan Copper & Brass, Heiser Body truck painting and Aurora Crane.

Alex Fryer's phone-message number is 206-464-8124. His e-mail address is afryer@seattletimes.com