Sound Transit gets light-rail go-ahead

A judge ruled yesterday that Sound Transit may start laying light-rail track from Seattle to Tukwila, even though the 14-mile line is far shorter than what voters approved six years ago.

Judge John Erlick, in King County Superior Court, said the agency's directors have the authority to shorten the rail line in response to rising costs that made the full 21-mile route from the University District to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport unaffordable.

"We can now proceed with confidence to move forward and build the light-rail system we promised the voters, and the voters want to see built ... ," said Sound Transit chairman Ron Sims, the King County Executive. "Today, the rule of law prevailed."

Opponents will appeal the case to the state Supreme Court "very promptly," said Bradley Bagshaw, attorney for the group Sane Transit, which is demanding a new public vote on light rail.

"When the cost of something changes a lot, I think it's fair to go back and give voters a second chance," Bagshaw said.

Whatever the outcome of the appeal, it is likely to be decided before construction bids are handled in May, said Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit communications director.

If the project avoids more legal roadblocks and passes review by federal inspectors and Congress over the winter, workers would start laying track in the Sodo area or begin to drill a Beacon Hill tunnel in summer 2003, he said.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has released $91 million for the project to date, and a remaining $409 million in needed federal grants for the $2.4 billion project are on hold until the reviews are done. The local political climate for light rail remains perilous, though.

Tim Eyman's Initiative 776, on Tuesday's ballot, would cut car-tab fees to $30, removing a source of transit revenue.

A proposed $1.75 billion city monorail connecting Ballard, downtown and West Seattle, if approved, would establish a rival technology and agency to compete for future routes or funding.

On Thursday, 26 city and county elected officials signed a letter to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., asking her to dump the 14-mile light rail line, which they termed a divisive project and "the least cost-effective way to meet our capacity needs."

Instead, they said local and federal funds should go to bus-rapid transit lanes, park-and-ride lots, van pools, the downtown bus tunnel and potentially monorail.

Signers include Metropolitan King County Council members Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, and Kathy Lambert, R-Redmond, Snoqualmie Mayor Fuzzy Fletcher, Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, Sammamish Councilman Don Gerend, Renton Councilman Don Persson, three officials from Snohomish County and six from Lake Forest Park.

After yesterday's ruling, Eyman said, "There's only one game in town when it comes to forcing a revote on light rail, and that's 776."

He predicted federal officials would look askance at providing hundreds of millions of dollars if voters send an overwhelming message Tuesday.

Sims and Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl said the FTA process does not appear vulnerable to I-776, while officials from Sound Transit and the state Department of Licensing have opined that the Sound Transit tax would continue to be collected since it has been pledged to pay for bonds already sold.

The 14-mile initial line is expected to cost $2.4 billion and handle 42,500 trips a day. Sound Transit officials don't yet know the cost to reach the U District and the airport, but think a full 21-mile corridor would handle about 100,000 daily trips.

On Sept. 27, Sound Transit chief counsel Desmond Brown argued the agency may collect as much tax as needed, for as long as necessary, to finish its projects.

Sane Transit argued that voters were misled by an eight-page mailing of the plan in 1996 because it left out any discussion of whether directors could shorten the line.

Erlick said opponents are trying to challenge the ballot title years after the election. Both the mailing and the resolution are binding, he said.

Light-rail supporter Richard Borkowski, of People for Modern Transit, said the ruling should deflate any perceptions among voters that Sound Transit is on the brink of collapse.

Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Cynthia Sullivan, D-Seattle and a Sound Transit board member, remarked, "I have only one thing to say — let's dig."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

The ruling

Judge John Erlick's decision in the case of Sane Transit vs. Sound Transit, and copies of the voter information from 1996, are online at