Thin majority still backs some light rail

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Despite long delays and $1 billion in cost overruns, Puget Sound-area voters aren't ready to pull the plug on Sound Transit's ambitious plan to build light rail in the region.

Northwest polls

The Seattle Times and Northwest Cable News, in partnership with the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, are conducting a series of polls about attitudes, lifestyles and key civic issues in the Pacific Northwest. This poll on Sound Transit is part of the project.
Slightly more than half of those surveyed in a new Seattle Times/Northwest Cable News poll still want to build light rail in some fashion, with most of those in favor of scaling back the 21-mile section from the University District to SeaTac.

But the poll indicates voters' patience with the troubled project - particularly in Seattle, which is expected to provide a big share of the riders - may be wearing thin.

About 40 percent of those polled want to abandon light rail completely.

And Seattle residents were far more likely to share that sentiment, with 54 percent saying it's time to give up on light rail. That geographic breakdown is notable: Seattle provided the strongest vote for Sound Transit when it was approved in 1996.

By contrast, only 32 percent of those polled in suburban east and north King County want to stop the light-rail project.

"Public opinion is gridlocked over the question of light rail," said Stuart Elway, president of Elway Research, which conducted the poll. "Support for light rail has eroded, and no other solution is seen as viable at this time. There seems to be more support for the idea of light rail than for the reality of it."

In recent months, the original light-rail plan has unraveled, with cost estimates for the project now $1 billion over budget and much of the anticipated federal money in jeopardy. Sound Transit officials recently acknowledged that the light-rail system can't be built by 2009, as scheduled.

Sound Transit has enough money - about $2 billion in local funds - to build something before the end of the decade. But there is no consensus among politicians about what to do next.

Nor is there any consensus among the public, according to the poll of 400 registered voters in the Sound Transit district, which includes most of King County and parts of Snohomish and Pierce counties. (The poll was conducted between April 28 and May 1 by Elway Research of Seattle for The Times and Northwest Cable News in partnership with the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. The margin of error is 5 percentage points.)

"I don't think there are any other viable alternatives," said Diane Davies, who works as a consultant for the Rainier Valley transit advisory council and is a strong advocate of the light-rail project. "While cost increases and the time line is very difficult, if we choose not to do it now and return to it in 20 years it will be much more expensive. We need to deal with the realities of now and get it built."

But Des Moines resident Harold Sabey, who voted for the project in 1996, has changed his mind. "You can't spend good money after bad," said Sabey, 81, who is a strong advocate of a Monorail system connecting Seattle and Tukwila

Among the highlights of the poll:

• When asked what should happen to light rail, 40 percent want to abandon the project and use the money to develop other transportation solutions; 37 percent favor building a smaller light-rail system; 14 percent favor raising the taxes necessary to build the system as planned.

• Among those who voted for the transit plan in 1996, 28 percent say they now want to abandon light rail.

• When asked to choose between building light rail and expanding the bus system as planned or abandoning light rail for a free, expanded bus system as some prominent critics have suggested, 48 percent chose the light-rail option. Only 36 percent said free buses would be a better use of money.

• Those who favored abandoning light rail in favor of expanded bus service said they believe more people would ride buses, that rail is too expensive, and that buses are more convenient. Those who supported rail in the poll cited reduced traffic congestion, the ability of trains to move more people and the need for a workable, regional solution to traffic problems.

• Fifty percent want Sound Transit to draft a new plan and put it on the ballot; 40 percent oppose that idea.

In 1996, on the fourth attempt to get light-rail approved, voters overwhelmingly passed a transit plan that called for commuter trains between Everett and Tacoma, 20 new express bus routes, and light rail from Seattle to SeaTac. Part of the plan included 18 new bus routes connecting cities in central Puget Sound.

One of those who voted for that plan was Wallingford resident Mary Walton, but she's having second thoughts. "I would pay higher taxes," she said. "But I don't like how they screwed around and lost the federal money. How many wheels are spinning without anything getting done?"

Sound Transit had planned to split the light-rail project into two parts, costing a total of $4.1 billion. The first phase would build a $2.6 billion, seven-mile segment from South Lander Street in South Seattle north to the University District. The second phase would go south 14 miles, from South Lander to the city of SeaTac and eventually to Seattle-Tacoma Airport, and cost about $1.5 billion. The entire system was to be completed in 2009.

Now the agency is considering other options. A decision is expected in September.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, a member of the Sound Transit board, and others have suggested the agency consider first building light rail from downtown Seattle to the city of SeaTac, then later figure out a way to reach the University District.

Told about the $2 billion available to Sound Transit, those polled were asked whether they would consider options that could be built without federal funds. One would be to build the southern part of the line from downtown Seattle to Tukwila. The other would be to build the north end of the line from the University of Washington to South Lander Street, which would require additional money.

Nearly one-third said they would opt for the southern segment. A slightly higher number - 35 percent - said the money should be used for something other than light rail.

In King County, sliced by Lake Washington and sprawling suburbs, rail doesn't make sense, said Douglas Pinnt, a Bothell resident who rides the bus to his downtown Seattle job in the computer industry.

"I'd love to see them abandon the project. It's an awful lot of money," he said. "You calculate how many people actually would ride the trains and it's probably insignificant compared to rides on the buses. Think about the fact the Microsoft campus wouldn't even be on the rail line: the most prestigious employer wouldn't be served at all."

Pinnt said if all the money were distributed to the people who would actually use the light-rail system, they would be so rich they would never have to work again.

Added Eugene Bartol, who lives in West Seattle. "I was born and raised in Seattle and we have two bodies of water, Lake Washington and the Sound. This (light rail) would only serve a small corridor, whereas buses would be far better because they could branch out."

Bartol voted against the measure in 1996, believing the cost estimates were far too low. But he isn't looking for vindication: "I'd really, really preferred it being successful, but I just couldn't see it."

Respondents were asked if they would ride a new light-rail system, and 73 percent said they would never or rarely ride it. Only 6 percent said they would be regular riders. And one-quarter of those who said they would regularly ride it still want to abandon the project.

Sound Transit has separate taxing districts for different regions within the three counties and tax money from each area was to be dedicated to projects within the district. But one way to complete the light-rail project would be to use tax money generated outside Seattle to help pay for it.

Those polled were split about this option. While 49 percent said they were not willing to pay for a light-rail line that wouldn't go near their home, 45 percent said transportation is a regional problem and they would support it.

"I don't want to pay higher taxes, but there's not a way to make it happen without that. We've discussed it to death," said John Keppler, a salesman who lives in South King County. "I was traveling into San Francisco when BART (that city's transit system) was in the early stages. I remember how over-cost and hated it was. They would be at a standstill if they hadn't done anything."

Susan Gilmore can be reached at 206-46-2054 or

Seattle Times staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report.