Sound Transit adopts 14-mile route; light-rail construction could start in summer

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In a move that was both historic and anticlimactic, the Sound Transit board yesterday officially approved the agency's plan to build a scaled-back, 14-mile light-rail line from downtown Seattle to Tukwila.

The 14-2 vote was anticlimactic because the board had indicated its overwhelming support for the project in a test vote two months ago. Most light-rail foes, anticipating the outcome, didn't even bother to show up yesterday.

But the vote was historic because supporters and opponents alike agreed it almost certainly means the project will break ground next summer.

"We've been debating as a region whether to move ahead on mass transit for 30 years," said board member Greg Nickels, Seattle's mayor-elect and a big light-rail booster.

"That debate is over."

Some opponents are contemplating legal action to block the project. But King County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, one of the two "no" votes, predicted the line will be built.

The $2.1 billion project still must secure $500 million in needed federal funding.

And Sound Transit must negotiate a new agreement with King County to run trains through the county-owned downtown Seattle bus tunnel.

"They're hurdles," McKenna said, "but they're hurdles the agency can overcome."

Some board members characterized this month's Seattle election as a referendum on light rail. Two board members — Nickels and Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver — won contests against opponents who criticized their support for the project.

"The issue of light rail was the debate, and they both survived," said King County Executive Ron Sims, another board member.

If light-rail critic Mark Sidran had defeated Nickels for mayor, Sims said, "we would be starting from scratch again."

Yesterday's vote came just a year after the board learned its original light-rail plan, a 21-mile line from Seattle's University District to SeaTac that voters had approved in 1996, was $1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule. The entire project appeared in jeopardy.

The scaled-back version emerged after months of reassessment and negotiation.

Sound Transit anticipates the line will open in 2009 with 42,000 daily boardings by 2020. Trains would share the downtown tunnel with buses.

The light-rail line would run from the tunnel's Westlake Station south through Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley to a park-and-ride lot in Tukwila near the intersection of highways 99 and 518.

Trains would stop a mile short of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a move derided by critics who call the line "the train to nowhere."

For now, Sound Transit plans to provide shuttle service from its southern terminus to the airport. The board yesterday approved a motion authorizing staff to explore ways to extend light rail to the airport by 2009.

Sound Transit calls the 14-mile line a starter system.

The agency's finance plan estimates that, after construction, $368 million will be left over to extend light rail to the University District, while $46 million will remain to push the line south to South 200th Street in SeaTac.

But neither extension can be built for those amounts. And, thanks to the recession and its impact on Sound Transit's tax revenues, the pot is shrinking: Two months ago, the agency projected it would have $411 million left to go north.

McKenna said he voted against the scaled-back plan because it's not what voters approved. Unless Sound Transit comes up with more money, he said, "you won't be able to get to the (airport) terminal, and you won't be able to get to the university."

But McKenna did say the project's budget appears realistic: "This one won't bankrupt us."

King County Councilwoman Jane Hague, R-Bellevue, also voted no. Outgoing Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and Everett Mayor Ed Hansen, who both opposed the project in September, were absent.

Emory Bundy, a leading light-rail critic, expressed disappointment with the vote. The project will actually make traffic congestion in the region worse, he said: "We're going to do everything we can (to stop it)."

Bundy said he and his allies will lobby Congress and the Federal Transit Administration to deny the project federal funding. They may also go to court to challenge the adequacy of Sound Transit's environmental review, he said.

Sensitive to concerns about possible cost overruns and construction delays, the board asked Executive Director Joni Earl to report back in January on ways to improve oversight and contain costs. It also decreed that money from the project's $128 million reserve fund be spent only if two-thirds of the board approves.

But there was a sense of satisfaction, even jubilation, among most board members. King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan, D-Seattle, predicted the starter line will "absolutely blow the socks off everybody when we see it up and running."

Eric Pryne can be reached at 206-464-2231 or