Capitol Hill tunnel splits transit panel

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Proposals to dig a light-rail tunnel under Capitol Hill came under fire from some Sound Transit board members yesterday.

King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell both raised doubts about the tunnel, which has been the most controversial part of the light-rail project.

"Taking us to Capitol Hill is fatal to any light-rail project," Sims said at a board workshop yesterday. "Why would we do it?"

Schell agreed with Sims' position.

The tunnel was part of the original $4.1 billion, 21-mile light-rail plan that was recently scrapped by the Sound Transit board when it fell short of the money needed to build the project by 2009. The system was supposed to stretch from the city of SeaTac to the University District.

The board in recent months has been struggling to decide what type of light-rail system it can afford to start with. Four options are now on the table. Two of them include the Capitol Hill tunnel. In one proposal, the tunnel is expected to cost about $800 million.

Although several board members want to look at light-rail options that save money by avoiding the tunnel, others feel equally strongly that any light-rail system built must eventually go through Capitol Hill.

Dave Earling, chairman of the Sound Transit board, is pushing for a light-rail alternative that runs from Capitol Hill to Henderson Street and would carry about 60,000 passengers daily. "This is clearly the one that offers the highest ridership," he said.

The debate over the Capitol Hill tunnel illustrates just how divided the Sound Transit board is about what type of system should be built. "There's not an obvious majority on any of the alignments," Earling said.

Schell wants the agency to consider putting more money into the commuter-rail system, which runs from Tacoma to Seattle, while the board takes time to figure out what's best for the light-rail project.

Sound Transit staff plan to come back with more information on all the light-rail alternatives, as well as an analysis of spending more money on commuter rail, for the next board meeting June 14.

Andrew Garber can be reached at 206-464-2595 or