Light-rail construction could begin in two weeks

In just over two weeks, Sound Transit expects to break ground on the first mile of light rail in Seattle.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) could sign a long-awaited $500 million federal grant agreement within days, clearing the last political hurdle in the path of the $2.44 billion, 14-mile line from downtown Seattle's Westlake Center to Tukwila.

Yesterday, the Sound Transit board agreed to comply with a handful of final conditions demanded by U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., who had bottled up the grant for months in his transportation funding subcommittee. Despite his misgivings that the Seattle project won't reduce traffic congestion, Istook relented in a letter Wednesday to the FTA.

Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, a Sound Transit board member, portrayed the breakthrough as a sign the region is regaining its swagger.

"A couple years ago, when we were working this project over, we were on the heels of WTO, the dot-com bust that may or may not be over, Boeing moving its headquarters," Drewel said.

"There were a number of folks who have made the statement that this region could think and act like a region, and could bring the region back in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of this country. The action (yesterday), the importance of it, could not be overstated."

King County Executive Ron Sims, Sound Transit's board chairman, invoked a football metaphor. The project is running toward the goal line, he said, with no tacklers ahead.

The long-delayed project, now scheduled to be completed in 2009, was rated "highly recommended" earlier this year by the FTA, which cited Seattle's traffic woes as well as above-average ridership potential in the city core and the Rainier Valley.

But the route and soil conditions also make it one of the costliest light-rail projects ever, three times the national average.

To satisfy Istook, the board approved a resolution yesterday agreeing not to tap surplus revenue now set aside for Eastside transit projects in order to build the Seattle light-rail line — even if the state Supreme Court upholds voter-approved Initiative 776, which seeks to repeal a car-tab tax that provides 20 percent of the transit agency's money.

In the resolution, Sound Transit also agreed to Istook's second condition: not to seek more than $500 million for the project, which it considers the initial segment of a regional network. That means any cost overruns would be have to be covered by local taxpayers.

Staffers faxed the resolution to Washington, D.C., in hopes of reaching the FTA by closing time yesterday. FTA officials, who said in July they were ready to sign the multiyear grant agreement, could not be reached for comment.

The U.S. Senate yesterday approved a 2004 transportation spending bill that appropriates $75 million of the $500 million in the agreement, the same amount President Bush proposed. The House has approved just $15 million in its version of the bill.

In his letter Wednesday, Istook imposed a third condition that did not require board action: He said he expects the agency to finish buying land for an elevated section of the line in Tukwila by October 2004 or lose federal aid. A federal report in July cited that link as a possible schedule risk.

Joni Earl, Sound Transit's executive director, said the agency wants that deadline extended to February 2005. It must complete final design of the alignment before it can buy the land, she said, and needs more time to explore a new, cheaper construction method. The anti-rail Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, which includes express-bus and monorail advocates, urged the board yesterday not to break ground.

"It costs too much, it does too little, it downgrades express-bus systems," said former Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Maggie Fimia. "It draws construction resources from worthier projects. It breaks faith with taxpayers. It's dangerous."

She showed a picture of a rail-auto collision in Salt Lake City and described the Seattle route's 18 grade crossings, on the surface in the Rainier Valley, as safety hazards.

Donald Padelford, another opponent, argued that the full light-rail plan approved by voters in 1996 had tripled in price, to $6 billion or $7 billion. Voters were promised a 21-mile line from just south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to the University District, with a possible extension to Northgate. Sound Transit cut back when cost overruns were discovered in 2000.

But the agency says it still intends to continue northward from downtown, and will discuss possible alignments in early 2004. But reaching Northgate would cost additional billions.

The project still faces at least one remaining legal risk: a lawsuit by opponents that argues the line must be subjected to another vote because it isn't what voters approved seven years ago. A King County Superior Court Judge dismissed that argument last November; an appeal is pending before the state Supreme Court.

Fimia speculated that the court will not decide that case or the fate of I-776 until after construction begins, and by then the issues could be moot.

Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, another Sound Transit board member, said the risks of Sound Transit losing are extremely small, and he sees no reason to hesitate about starting construction.

Kiewit Pacific has submitted bids totaling $95 million to lay track through Sodo and build a maintenance base near the old Rainier brewery. Sound Transit is eager to get going because the bids were $15 million under agency estimates and are due to expire today.

The contractors are willing to keep the offer on the table "a few more days" while the federal documents are signed, Earl said.

From there, it will take about two weeks for Kiewit to position its equipment, file insurance forms and produce a work schedule, said Ahmad Fazel, Sound Transit's light-rail director. Then construction can begin.

The Sodo section is considered the easiest to build; the most challenging section will be a one-mile tunnel through soggy Beacon Hill.

Kiewit and its subcontractors expect to employ more than 100 people to build the first mile of track. Construction employment over the entire route through 2009 would reach into the thousands.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, another board member, brought a shovel yesterday for Sims to use at groundbreaking. "We are a signature away," Nickels said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or