Drop First Hill light-rail stop, CEO Earl says

Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl has recommended that the agency delete Seattle's First Hill from its proposed light-rail line between downtown and North Seattle.

"The risk is too high," Earl said yesterday.

The agency's board is scheduled to make a decision today.

Earl's recommendation, which she acknowledged is "clearly unwelcome," came as no surprise. In a presentation two weeks ago, Sound Transit staff members told the board that a deep-underground First Hill station — part of the agency's light-rail plan since 1996 — posed potentially expensive construction and schedule risks and would hurt the light-rail line's prospects for badly needed federal grants.

But Earl said Sound Transit wouldn't abandon First Hill and should work with the city and county to connect the dense, job-rich neighborhood to the rail line, perhaps with shuttle buses or trolleys.

King County Executive Ron Sims, a Sound Transit board member, suggested a streetcar down 12th Avenue or Boren Avenue, which would link First Hill with a planned light-rail station on Capitol Hill near Broadway and East Denny Way.

"Sound Transit needs to find a way to close the loop," Sims said.

And Sims said he would vote to scrap the First Hill Station if Sound Transit's technical studies support Earl's concerns about risk.

Michael Gray, of the First Hill Improvement Association, which is lobbying to save the station, said the neighborhood might accept a trolley or streetcar, "but just shuttles or buses isn't going to hack it."

Buses now average only 6 mph along Madison Street, a major First Hill thoroughfare, Gray said. "It's almost faster to walk."

Some have suggested that by forgoing the $350 million First Hill Station, Sound Transit could afford to build an underground rail line from downtown as far north as Husky Stadium at the University of Washington without asking voters to raise taxes. Others, including Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver, a First Hill station backer, have said the agency probably still would fall short.

Earl said she didn't have that answer yet. A financing plan should be ready this fall, she said. Among the likely elements: liberalizing the agency's financial policies so it can borrow more.

Sims, however, said he's confident Sound Transit can build the line to Husky Stadium without raising taxes.

Sound Transit is counting on $650 million from the federal government to help pay for the $1.5 billion, 3.3-mile stretch.

Earl said yesterday a station at First Hill probably would keep the project from getting that money, because the line wouldn't meet the Bush administration's new, tougher standard for cost-effectiveness. While it would cost a lot, it would attract relatively few riders who aren't already transit users, Earl said.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com