Sound Transit to get $500 million, but it comes with strings attached

WASHINGTON — The Oklahoma congressman holding up a $500 million federal grant needed to launch construction of Sound Transit's light-rail project yesterday dropped his objection, pending three conditions.

Rep. Ernest Istook's move all but clears the way for work to begin on the state's largest public-works project, and was greeted with cautious optimism by Sound Transit officials.

"We're not popping any corks around here, but it's a significant development and we're excited," said Sound Transit Communication Director Ric Ilgenfritz. "It's a breakthrough."

The Sound Transit board will meet today to consider the latest developments. But even light rail's staunchest opponents concede the agency has crossed a critical threshold.

Without the federal grant, Sound Transit officials said they would be unable to build light rail.

Istook's decision capped a frenzied couple of days in Washington, D.C., where — in an unusual display of disharmony — the state's delegation lobbied for and against the mass-transit project.

As chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, Istook, Republican, has jurisdiction over transportation projects including Sound Transit, and his role has been critical to the project.

In his letter yesterday to federal transportation officials, he outlined several conditions: a commitment that Sound Transit will not tap into Eastside transit funds to pay for cost overruns on the $2.44 billion project; a commitment that Sound Transit will not ask for more than $500 million for the Seattle-to-Tukwila route; and a requirement that Sound Transit make the necessary right-of-way acquisitions in Tukwila before next October.

Last July, federal auditors noted the difficulty of building a bridge across the Duwamish River. The proposed light-rail line would also cross over two railroad lines and Interstate 5 near the Boeing Access Road.

Istook said he also was concerned the proposed light-rail route costs too much and does little to relieve congestion. And he wondered whether the project could survive financially if the Washington state Supreme Court upholds Initiative 776, which would limit vehicle taxes and cut $703 million from Sound Transit's budget.

But it was too late to consider those issues now, Istook wrote.

Sound Transit has $94 million of pending construction bids that expire tomorrow. It could not execute the bids without the federal grant agreement.

Agency officials estimated that taxpayers would be forced to pay tens of millions of dollars in added costs if Sound Transit were forced to rebid the contracts.

However, Istook noted that Congress must approve all annual federal transit spending, and Sound Transit shouldn't count on receiving its money without a fight in the coming years.

"Nothing in this letter should be construed as guaranteeing that the pace of annual appropriations for this project will match the pace currently desired," he wrote.

The grant agreement lays out a schedule of annual payments to Sound Transit that will total $500 million by 2009.

If it's signed, the president's budget will likely include $80 million for Seattle light rail in each of the next three years, with the remainder coming in the following years.

Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, a critic of the project, is traveling in Iraq, but her office released a statement applauding Istook's decision to approve the agreement — with the conditions.

Tim Eyman, who authored I-776, conceded that Istook's letter signaled a blow to light-rail opponents. "Sound Transit has shown a complete disregard for plummeting public support for the light-rail boondoggle and will likely proceed no matter what."

Former Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Maggie Fimia of Citizens for Effective Transportation Alternatives (CETA), a light-rail opposition group, called Istook's letter "very premature," and said she was surprised he hadn't waited until after the state Supreme Court rules on I-776.

On Capitol Hill this week, supporters and opponents of Sound Transit, including Istook, sparred behind closed doors.

On Tuesday, Dunn and Istook met at the White House with President Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, also attended the meeting.

Although Dunn's office said Sound Transit was not discussed, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, said he believed Dunn was trying to persuade the Bush administration to drop its support for Sound Transit.

The federal Department of Transportation has rated Sound Transit "highly recommended."

A light-rail booster, Dicks said he called officials at the White House and the Department of Transportation to lobby on Sound Transit's behalf.

"I made sure they knew there was a difference of opinion in the delegation. I talked to everybody in town," he said.

Dicks said he never anticipated Sound Transit would have such a difficult time in Congress, or that the issue would pit members of the delegation against each other.

"This was unprecedented in my 35 years here, this kind of fight in the delegation. I never expected this in a million years," he said.

Another Sound Transit supporter, Sen. Patty Murray, said she was "really pleased. I think this is good news for taxpayers and commuters in Washington state."

She said she was not worried that Sound Transit will go through the wringer every time its annual appropriation comes through Congress.

"At the end of the day, they will get the $500 million," she said.

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or Reporter Eric Pryne contributed to this report.