WHEN IT COMES to funding Sound Transit's $2 billion light-rail project, it seems the cash-strapped city of Seattle can't spend money fast enough.
This Monday, the Seattle City Council approved (7-1, with Judy Nicastro voting against and Margaret Pageler absent) a resolution that supports putting as much as $20 million into a fund to move utilities underground along the light-rail route on Martin Luther King Way. Sound Transit would kick in another $13.5 million to move the unsightly overhead utility lines. And next week, the council is poised to dedicate another $42.8 million to the beleaguered light-rail project, contributing to a $50 million fund that will pay to help mitigate the economic and cultural impacts of light rail.
These massive new expenditures, while coming at a time when the city is preparing to cut up to $50 million from next year's budget, haven't been as controversial as you might think. At every public hearing on the items, representatives from the Rainier Valley have turned out in scores to plead their case. But why the city, rather than Sound Transit, should pay for this mitigation—and where exactly the money will come from—remains unclear. So far, though, all signs for who is on the hook point to City Light, an agency that itself is mired in nearly $2 billion in debt.
Council member Heidi Wills, along with council budget chair Jan Drago, did manage to get a couple of amendments tacked onto the resolution to reduce the city's liability: One, from Wills, said the city would look for funding sources outside City Light before hitting up the utility's ratepayers; the other, from Drago, capped the city's contribution to the undergrounding project at $19.8 million, the upper estimate. Drago, who said she lacked confidence in Sound Transit's ability to manage its pocketbook, bristled at the suggestion that the city pay for moving utilities underground at any cost. "I'm not willing to open our checkbook without a cap, period," Drago says.
Erica C. Barnett