Light rail lite goes to vote tomorrow; 1st leg would link Seattle, Tukwila

Sound Transit's board will vote tomorrow on a new light-rail project that's shorter, more expensive per mile and will carry fewer riders than the system approved by voters five years ago.

The proposed system would run 14 miles from downtown Seattle to South 154th Street in Tukwila, cost $150 million a mile to build and have 42,500 daily boardings by 2020. It would open in 2009.

In 1996, voters were promised a 21-mile light-rail line from the city of SeaTac to the University District that would cost $114 million a mile to build and have 127,000 daily boardings.

Several on the board said they expect the new project to get an initial go-ahead. A final vote won't come until November.

The scaled-back "starter" system is the result of more than a year of controversy, agency missteps, cost increases and congressional scrutiny that led Sound Transit to acknowledge in April that it needed a different plan.

The agency cut back until it came up with a light-rail system it felt it could afford. Even so, the new project would cost more than $2 billion to build and require $500 million in federal aid.

In addition, Sound Transit officials say the agency will need hundreds of millions in additional funding to eventually extend the light rail to SeaTac and the U District. They're not sure yet where all the money would come from. The agency has the option of increasing taxes, but "that's really a last resort," said Joni Earl, Sound Transit's executive director.

Board chairman Dave Earling said the new 14-mile project is worth building even if the agency never lays another mile of light rail. "I do believe that," he said.

But Earling stressed that the board is committed to completing the light-rail system promised to voters.

The public will want to extend the light-rail system once the first segment is completed, he said. "I think when they see light rail, they will want more."

Not all on the 18-member board are so confident.

"My prediction is that by the time we get this thing built or even under construction, Seattle is going to decide it wants to go with the monorail," said Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna, a Sound Transit board member and light-rail critic.

Most board members contacted this week, even those with concerns about the project, said they plan to vote in favor tomorrow. Some declined comment.

McKenna, vice chairman of Sound Transit's finance committee, said he's a solid "no" vote.

Sound Transit, he said, won't have enough money to extend light rail north or south once the initial segment is completed.

Projections show that after building the initial link Sound Transit would have $12 million to extend light rail south to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the city of SeaTac, and $411 million to go north to Seattle's U District. Sound Transit officials acknowledge that's not enough money to extend light rail in either direction.

The agency says it should be able to complete the entire 21-mile line by cutting costs, getting more federal money and pursuing other options, such as selling more bonds.

Just getting to South 200th Street in SeaTac is expected to cost between $350 million and $500 million. The cost depends in part on what it will cost to build a station at Sea-Tac airport. Sound Transit doesn't have cost estimates yet for reaching the U District.

If the board approves the project this week, the agency still has some old problems to clear up.

The inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation earlier this year raised questions about Sound Transit's construction-cost estimates, and the agency's ability to pay for a light-rail system. It was recommended the agency not get any federal money until it proved its numbers were accurate and Congress had more time to review the proposal.

The project has changed considerably since then, but Sound Transit still has to convince the inspector general the agency has taken care of its problems.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, said $500 million in federal aid is waiting for Sound Transit, assuming it can clear up remaining questions by the inspector general and the Federal Transit Administration.

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