Light-rail cost soars $1 billion

Sound Transit blew the doors off its previous cost estimates yesterday, saying it will cost an additional billion dollars and three extra years to build a 21-mile light-rail line.

The agency's staff, in a report led by two newly hired executives, acknowledged that its previous timetable and cost estimates were unrealistic. Tunnel construction, land acquisition and agreements with property owners have all ended up dramatically more expensive than the agency predicted.

The light-rail line can still be built if voter-approved taxes are kept in place an additional three years and the federal government kicks in an additional $215 million, said Joni Earl, who joined Sound Transit as chief operating officer in October. She led the reassessment of the agency's finances.

The light-rail line from SeaTac to the University District is the core of a system of express buses, commuter trains and light rail approved by voters in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties in 1996.

Light rail's price tag rose from $1.9 billion to $2.6 billion under the new estimates released yesterday, a difference that will amount to more than $1 billion by the time the money is actually spent. And light rail would start running in 2009, three years later than envisioned in the measure approved by voters. Earl said the issuance of the report represented a move toward openness by the agency.

"We need to make sure we're candid and honest and make sure we don't repeat the errors with too much optimism," she said. "We hope the public stays with us, because we believe the public still wants this project."

In a section called "Lessons Learned," the report said the agency staff should have told its board what effect an ambitious construction schedule and numerous design changes would have on the overall costs.

"In trying to respond to community desires, third-party requests and board wishes, the board was not adequately informed about the cumulative cost impacts of many, many small and large decisions," the report said.

Sound Transit has wrestled with its budget most of this year, and this latest set of estimates was requested by the board after critics accused the agency of concealing cost overruns.

Last month, capping weeks of speculation, the agency acknowledged that the single biggest piece of the light-rail project, the tunnel from downtown to the University District, was going to cost $171 million more than the $557 million the agency had budgeted for it.

But that overrun was less than a third of the $680 million in changes made public yesterday. They include:

** $385 million for construction and equipment

** $82 million more to buy land and relocate property owners and tenants

** $96 million for agreements with third parties, including the costs of buying the downtown Seattle transit tunnel and getting permission from the University of Washington to run the light-rail tunnel under campus

** $117 million in additional administrative and operating costs for the light-rail project--partly due to extending the schedule an additional three years.

News of the higher price tag drew calls for further examinations from a light-rail critic, King County council member Maggi Fimia of Shoreline.

"We're still not getting to an independent review," said Fimia, spokeswoman for Sane Transit, a citizens group that has been trying to persuade Sound Transit to submit to an outside look at its finances. "Sane Transit members and others want an independent review of the light-rail system. We have major concerns about the credibility of the agency."

Despite the additional costs, Earl said the project can still be built without raising new taxes--as long as the Sound Transit board exercises its option to extend voter-approved sales tax and vehicle fees for an additional three years, through 2009.

Earl said she believed the Sound Transit board has the power to extend the taxes without asking voters for additional approval. The board is scheduled to discuss the findings tomorrow and will schedule two public "open houses" in January to allow citizens to ask questions and give their reactions.

By Jan. 11, the board will decide whether to officially commit to the light-rail project by signing a contract with the Federal Transit Administration for a $500 million federal grant.

Earl worked on the report with another new member of Sound Transit's administration--Lyndon "Tuck" Wilson, Sound Transit's interim director of Link light rail and former director of the Westside light-rail project in Portland. Said Wilson of the light-rail project: "It becomes a value judgment for the community--is this the kind of community we want to be?" Light rail is "an elegant solution" to moving people, he said, "even at this price."