Tied to the rails

Ron Sims and Paul Schell are trying to save us from the worst of Sound Transit. But they're getting run over.

How did King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell spend their summer vacations? Trying desperately to locate an escape route from light rail. Both men have been scrounging for some alternative that would remove the multi-ton trains from Martin Luther King Way while at the same time pushing the rail line further north than the University of Washington, where it is presently slated to end. They've hatched all kinds of proposals, from high-speed buses to new financing tricks.

But now Sims and Schell are being pressured to, in effect, get in, sit down, shut up, and hang on.

Paul Miller, the chair of the Sound Transit board, believes it's high time for Sound Transit to stop dithering and start building what Puget Sound voters approved back in 1996. "You live by your promises," he says. "That means we have to build the system we promised, within the budget we have, and within the timing we promised." Sound Transit pledged to have the system running by 2006.

But Schell, in a radio interview last week, argued that "Being 'on time and on budget' for something that's a big mistake is nothing to be proud of. It's not responsible to ignore what we've learned in the last four years [since the election]."

Sound Transit's Citizen Oversight Panel recently issued a "call to action," urging local leaders to stop bickering and "recommit to making the [Sound Transit] vision a reality." Local editorial writers have whined their impatience at the Mayor and Executive. And Senators Slade Gorton and Patty Murray recently penned a letter to Sound Transit board members warning that federal money for the light rail project could be endangered unless they manage to drum up some community "consensus" soon.

This has left Sims and Schell in a tough spot, compelled to go along with a $2 billion transit project that they have all but admitted is only dimly effective, if not in some ways counterproductive. "This is not a system designed for maximizing the number of people going to take it," Sims conceded in a radio interview last week.

There doesn't appear to be any easy way out—or even a hard way. The current light rail plan—released in February and known, in bureaucrat-ese, as "the locally preferred alternative"—has the rail line starting at Sea-Tac and ending at NE 45th Street by the University of Washington. About fifty thousand people are expected to take the train each day—most of them former bus riders—and for them, travel should be faster and more reliable than what Metro provides. But there could be some nasty side effects.

Community leaders in the University District worry that traffic will be made worse, as their already congested neighborhood becomes the light rail drop-off point. And when trains take over the Seattle bus tunnel, downtown streets will be flooded with buses—a situation that has the business community in a lather.

The "preferred alternative" also sends the light rail line chugging down Martin Luther King Way in the Rainier Valley: 360-foot-long trains running every six minutes in both directions—which Sims believes could "overwhelm" the community (though many community residents and businesses vigorously support it). Sims and his staff spent a good part of this summer examining alternatives for the Valley, such as high-speed buses in dedicated lanes. But Sound Transit board members from south of Seattle made it quite clear that they wouldn't support a plan that did not bring light rail to Sea-Tac.

Now both Sims and Schell are talking about limiting the trains in the Valley to just two cars—or 180 feet. But that plan seems like a fantasy. As Sound Transit communications manager Denny Fleenor observes, "It's not as easy as people might think to break a train down from four cars to two, especially when it's running." Passengers would also have to stop and transfer trains every time they enter or leave the Valley.

Sims and Schell are hamstrung by the fact that Sound Transit's rules require each part of the Puget Sound region to receive exactly as many dollars in transit service as it gives up in taxes. In other words, the good of the system as a whole has been sacrificed for "equity," a deadly political compromise which the Sound Transit backers made back in 1996 to get their plan passed.

Everyone agrees, for example, that the light rail system would be much more productive if it at least got up to Northgate and ideally to NE 145th Street. That way, more buses and cars could deposit their passengers onto the train, relieving downtown. But reaching 145th would cost another $450 million or so, and that money is not available from the taxes Sound Transit is collecting in North King County.

So while the rail system could generate a lot more riders by extending further north than it can by going to Sea-Tac, Sound Transit is obliged to build in the south. "You can't make South King County pay for a system that only serves North Seattle," says Tacoma City Council member Paul Miller, the chair of the Sound Transit board.

Spurred on by downtown's anxious business establishment, Schell has cooked up a half-dozen different financial schemes to help get to Northgate—such as increasing Sound Transit's "debt-coverage ratios," leasing equipment instead of buying it, and so forth. Some of these would require approval from the voters. Schell also wants to persuade the state legislature in Olympia to chip in $100 million or so to the project—a goal that Sound Transit board member Rob McKenna calls "a pipe dream."

The trouble is, of course, that any additional money could easily be sucked up by cost overruns incurred just getting from Sea-Tac to the U District. The current estimated cost of the overall Sound Transit plan is already about a half-billion dollars over the $3.9 billion budget that voters approved—and that's before they start tunneling into Capitol Hill. (Sound Transit officials contend that much of that half-billion is attributable to a change in financing strategy, one that will ultimately save taxpayers money.)

And the future looks just as dicey. At the time of the election, voters were led to believe that they were approving a "Phase I" light rail project: a "starter" system, but one that could stand on its own if the voters so desired. But now, few public officials in Seattle believe that the Phase I plan makes sense on its own. "It's essential that we get to Northgate," says Schell. Sims goes even farther, arguing that the light rail line has to reach 145th to have any material effect on traffic.

Yet even if voters were to approve Phase II—extending the Sound Transit sales taxes for another ten years beyond 2006—Sound Transit officials say that money would virtually all be swallowed up just in maintaining what we've already built and paying off the debt service. In other words, there is no Phase II. (At least not in Seattle. Tons of money will be available to expand Sound Transit on the Eastside.) It appears that the only way Seattle voters can get a light rail system that works is by raising their taxes yet again.

At this point, light rail is running on faith: faith that the federal government will put up $100 million a year to pay for it (so far, it's given just $80 million in two years); faith that digging a tunnel under Capitol Hill and Portage Bay can be accomplished at a price remotely close to what's been forecast; faith that the trains will rejuvenate MLK Way, not decimate it; faith that Metro will come up with a way to feed the light rail line that is convenient and efficient; and so on. Considering what $1 billion would buy in sure-thing transportation improvements that could be on the ground tomorrow—like better bus service and free parking for car pools—it's no wonder that Sims and Schell are wondering if there isn't a better way.

Three years ago, Sims was one of a small minority of county politicians who wanted to delay selling bonds for the Mariners' stadium, concerned that rushing into construction would lead to unforeseen problems and massive cost overruns. Sims was shouted down at the time by the daily newspapers and other team boosters and had to retreat. As they say in baseball, "It's d骠 vu all over again."

 
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