Sound Transit awaits congressional blessing to build light-rail line

WASHINGTON — Soon after Greg Nickels became Seattle's mayor, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., strongly suggested he abandon his oft-repeated campaign pledge to break ground on light rail within six months of taking office.

Congress, not the Seattle mayor, would determine when Sound Transit's light rail was ready to move forward, she told Nickels during a meeting in the Capitol last year.

Nickels quietly dumped his break-ground-in-six-months promise, and today the mayor's office is bowing to Congress' timetable.

The anecdote illustrates the power Congress wields in the decades-long effort to build light rail in the Seattle area. And in the coming weeks, Congress is poised to make some critical decisions that ultimately will determine when — and perhaps, if — the first shovel of dirt gets moved on the state's largest public-works project.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is expected to approve $500 million in federal money any day and send it to Congress for a 60-day review. Its chances in Congress aren't known.

But an important litmus test will be whether the $75 million President Bush requested for Sound Transit is included in the appropriations bill put together by an influential Oklahoma congressman. The $75 million would not make or break the project, but Sound Transit considers the half-billion grant essential to building the $2.5 billion light-rail route from Tukwila to downtown Seattle. Without federal assistance, Sound Transit says it can't lay an inch of track.

All of this sets up what may be the final acts in the epic to build a new mass-transit project in Seattle.

If Congress raises no objections to the grant, Sound Transit says construction on the 14-mile project could begin within weeks after the review period expires — presumably early this fall. Opponents hope for protracted hearings and an eventual rebuff from Congress.

It's a high-stakes game played with hardball tactics and plenty of money.

To represent its interests in Congress, Sound Transit pays three Washington, D.C.-based lobbyists monthly retainers totaling $40,000, as well as the $450-an-hour bill of former GOP Sen. Slade Gorton, who works for a Seattle law firm with offices in the capital.

Opponents of light rail also are focusing on federal lawmakers, albeit with considerably fewer resources. Some critics have mailed the Seattle-to-SeaTac bus schedule to lawmakers in an effort to prove that light rail would duplicate existing service.

Former King County Councilwoman Maggie Fimia, co-chairwoman of the anti-light-rail Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, said her group recently sent a report to Congress detailing what it considers flaws in the project, such as inaccurate ridership projections and lax FTA oversight.

Fimia said local politicians and opinion-makers have failed to derail what she considers a multibillion-dollar boondoggle.

"Our last resort is Congress," she said.

Perfecting the pitch

It is a little after noon on June 17, and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, is strategizing in his congressional office with Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl, Gorton, several aides and Sound Transit lobbyists.

They compiled fact sheets about Sound Transit and figured out who would say what in their upcoming meeting with Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., chairman of the powerful House appropriations transportation subcommittee.

Istook had also invited Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, and King County Councilman Rob McKenna to the meeting. McKenna said they were going to tell the chairman that light rail costs too much and would eventually suck tax money from the Eastside. But Dunn couldn't make it, and McKenna decided to stay in Seattle.

Congress has earmarked a total of $91 million for Sound Transit since 1997. This year, the Bush administration put $75 million for the agency in its budget request, the largest annual grant yet. The money counts against the $500 million grant.

Dicks and the others want Istook to include the $75 million for Sound Transit in his multibillion-dollar spending bill to be unveiled early next month. If he does, Sound Transit supporters say it is unlikely Istook would turn around and grill the agency over the $500 million grant when it comes to his subcommittee from the FTA.

Dicks had spoken to Istook about Sound Transit while the two worked out in the House gym. He knew the conservative lawmaker wasn't enthusiastic about light rail and had questions about Sound Transit's cost and potential ridership.

At their pre-meeting huddle in Dicks' office, Dicks, Gorton and Earl perfected their pitch: Compared with other projects around the country, Sound Transit was cheaper, and its ridership projections were favorable. The Bush administration supported the project, and Seattle didn't have many other transportation options.

Best of all, local taxpayers are picking up 80 percent of the bill.

Around 12:45 p.m., the group strode out of Dicks' office in the Rayburn House Office Building, marched down one flight of stairs and entered Istook's office.

With the exception of Gorton, the lobbyists were left outside. This meeting would be among principal players only.

Long fight for funding

Sound Transit has a long, difficult history on Capitol Hill.

In the last days of the Clinton administration in January 2001, Murray and Dicks desperately wanted the FTA to sign the $500 million grant to Sound Transit. The agency's chances were considered iffy in a Republican administration, and time was running out.

But at the time, Sound Transit was besieged with criticism that it had misrepresented costs and scheduling estimates. The price for a light-rail line from SeaTac to the University District grew by about $1 billion in December, and the completion date was moved back two years.

Days before Bush took office, the incoming chairman of the House appropriations transportation subcommittee, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., asked FTA officials to put the Sound Transit funding on hold until he had a chance to review it.

On Jan. 19, 2001, the last day of the Clinton presidency, Murray and Dicks sent aides to camp out in the offices of Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater. Around 8:30 p.m. — about 16 hours before Bush was sworn in — Slater signed the agreement for the half-billion-dollar grant over the objections of Rogers and others in the Department of Transportation.

Rick Desimone, Murray's chief of staff, said Sound Transit needed a signed agreement before Bush took office. Another round of scrutiny under a Republican administration could have delayed the project indefinitely, he said.

"It would die in the cradle if it wasn't signed."

But Rogers was furious, according to several congressional sources.

He told the FTA that he would not honor the agreement and wouldn't appropriate any money for Sound Transit. He also called for the Department of Transportation to launch an internal audit of Sound Transit.

In April 2001, the Office of Inspector General, the investigative arm of the Department of Transportation, released a scathing report on Sound Transit, criticizing the agency as well as the FTA for allowing costs to spiral out of control.

The same day the report was released, Murray met with Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and agreed the project needed a timeout. Murray promised that Sound Transit would not seek further federal funds until its finances were cleaned up.

The FTA put the $500 million grant on hold, essentially rewriting the agreement as Sound Transit came up with a shorter, cheaper light-rail route that eliminated the Capitol Hill and University District stations.

Back on track — maybe

Sound Transit got its grant in January 2001, but it also had a lot of fence mending to do, both internally and with Congress and the Bush administration.

Earl, the Sound Transit executive director, traveled to Washington, D.C., every six weeks in 2001, talking to congressional staff and federal transit officials and auditors.

Last spring, three Inspector General auditors took a spare office in Sound Transit's Seattle headquarters and spent the next 10 months poring over financial procedures and interviewing staff to determine their competency to build the largest public-works project in state history.

The auditors told Sound Transit to improve its cost estimates and oversight. They also instructed the agency to create new positions such as an independent quality-assurance manager and project-control manager.

The politics weren't favorable for Sound Transit. Bush polled only 20 percent of Seattle-area voters in the 2000 election, and no one believed his administration would support Sound Transit in an effort to win local votes.

But members of the Washington delegation were either united behind Sound Transit or kept their criticism mute. And federal transportation officials began to signal that the agency was making progress.

In August 2002, Mineta wrote Murray to tell her the administration was releasing $49.5 million it had put on hold after the auditor's first report. He also said his department approved Sound Transit's move to complete final design and real-estate acquisition for light rail.

Mineta said the approval was "based on careful and thorough review and evaluation of the project costs and benefits."

The project was back on track, even though voters passed a Tim Eyman initiative in November 2002 that called for a revote on the Sound Transit plan. A King County Superior Court judge later ruled Initiative 776 unconstitutional, and the case is on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Earlier this year, Rogers of Kentucky left the transportation subcommittee to lead the homeland security subcommittee. Istook, who was not a member of the transportation subcommittee in the last Congress, was named chairman.

Suddenly, Sound Transit had to lobby a new lawmaker.

Waiting and lobbying

Dicks and the others emerged from the June 17 meeting with Istook after about an hour and headed back to Dicks' office.

Conventional political wisdom would dictate that if a project is endorsed by a popular Republican president, a Republican congressman would be loath to throw up roadblocks.

Indeed, the $75 million budget request and the federal Transportation Department's rating of Sound Transit as "highly recommended" were both cited on the third fact sheet handed to Istook.

"Did he say so (that his thinking would be influenced by the White House)? Would he ever say so? Of course he wouldn't," Gorton said. "But does it have an impression on him? Of course it does. I would not want to be in there today arguing for something that was not in the president's budget."

Gorton said he jotted down a word he heard Istook say repeatedly — "unburdening." The Oklahoman wanted to know if light rail would help lift the burden from crowded highways and buses in the Seattle area.

Dicks said they told Istook that light rail would have 16,000 daily riders, taking 14,500 cars off the street.

That's a figure that King County Councilman Rob McKenna would love the chance to dispute, if Istook decides to hold hearings on the $500 million grant.

While people will certainly get out of their cars to take light rail, the system would reduce only a small fraction of the cars currently traveling along Interstate 5 during rush hour, according to Sound Transit's own projections, said McKenna. Most of the reduction in traffic would come in neighborhoods that trace the light-rail line.

"There are a lot of games that get played with the numbers," said McKenna, a longtime light-rail critic.

The congressman from Oklahoma didn't make a commitment to Dicks and the others, and he wasn't answering media questions about Sound Transit last week.

And so both sides of the light-rail debate must wait, and lobby.

Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report. Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or

What opponents say

• A route to Tukwila is not a complete, stand-alone project as required to qualify for federal aid. That's because the success of light rail depends on reaching the University District — and Sound Transit has yet to locate an alignment or a funding source to do so.

• More federal money would be necessary to extend the line.

• Trains on surface streets would kill people, opponents say. In Rainier Valley, there would be 18 road crossings where 272 trains a day pass. An environmental-impact statement predicted 29 collisions a year between trains and motor vehicles. (Sound Transit and the environmental statement say car collisions on Martin Luther King Way South would decrease because of Link-related road improvements.)

• The existing downtown transit tunnel could accommodate more passengers as the core of a regional bus system than it would under Sound Transit's plan for joint train and bus use.

• Factual errors in the New Starts report illustrate "careless FTA oversight." For example, it incorrectly says light rail will attract 29,000 trips a day by people who otherwise would not use mass transit, while the actual estimate by Sound Transit of new users is 16,000.

Source: "Report to Congress on the Seattle Link Light Rail Project," by John Niles of the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, May 2003.

What the FTA and Sound Transit say

• "Strong land-use policies" ensure that enough people live near the stations to support mass transit. New developments are planned along the line. There are about 170,000 jobs within a half-mile of light-rail stations, mostly downtown. With an estimated 42,500 daily boardings by 2020, ridership is projected to be higher than for many other light-rail lines around the country.

• Local taxpayers are covering 80 percent of the bill, reducing the federal share to a relatively low 20 percent.

• Sound Transit has a reliable financing plan based on stable local tax sources. The agency's bond ratings are very high, and ample bonding capacity is available.

• The line would serve Rainier Valley neighborhoods with relatively high transit ridership and some of the city's largest minority and low-income populations. People living there would save several minutes on each trip downtown.

• Design work is near completion and the agency is ready to build.

Sources: FTA "New Starts" profile, February 2003; New Starts application sent by Sound Transit to FTA, October 2001.

The light-rail debate

If Congress chooses to scrutinize the proposed Sound Transit project from Convention Place to Tukwila, it will consider pro-rail arguments from Federal Transit Administration's "New Starts" documentation. Opponents have sent lawmakers a competing report.