Screeching halt

THE END OF THE LINE for light rail? Hard to say. Sound Transit certainly took a body blow last week when the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation called on the feds to temporarily withhold any more money for the light-rail agency. Two years’ worth of expected grants—or $125 million—suddenly went poof.

Even worse, the inspector called for a thorough reevaluation of the federal government’s overall $500 million commitment to Sound Transit, which was made on the final day of the Clinton Administration. The inspector, in essence, said that before the feds can help pay for the project, Sound Transit needs to figure out where exactly its light-rail trains are going to go and how much the project is going to cost. Amazingly enough, these questions remain unanswered—four and a half years after a light-rail plan was approved by local voters.

“The report makes it clear there are a number of steps we have to take and questions we have to answer before the project can go further,” says Geoff Stuckart, a Sound Transit spokesperson. Even after those steps, there will be another 60-day review of the project by a possibly hostile Congress.

Whether these new requirements will kill off the project or simply slow its already retarded progress is impossible to say. In any event, they appear to show a grievous political miscalculation on the part of Sound Transit.

Back in January, the politicians who serve on Sound Transit’s board of directors signed off on the so-called Full Funding Grant Agreement with the feds even before they had the chance to see it. Why the rush? For political reasons, board members said, it was necessary to get the agreement in place before the change in presidential administrations. Sound Transit’s Washington, D.C., lobbyist came to town to emphasize “the importance of addressing this” before the Clinton team was gone.

But that strategy seems to have backfired—by inflaming incoming Republicans. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of a key subcommittee, last week declared that the agreement was “premature, with numerous, basic questions about the project left unanswered.” And the inspector general found that the Federal Transit Administration under Clinton “did not perform a sufficiently thorough evaluation.” Now, having slipped in just under the bar, Sound Transit may be subject to even closer scrutiny.

Sound Transit’s D.C. lobbyist, Peter Peyser, however, asserts that “Sound Transit’s strategy to push for speedy completion of the FFGA was absolutely the right approach.” He says the agency is in a much better position than if the agreement were not signed. Otherwise, Peyser notes, Sound Transit would still be in line with other transit projects, “and would not necessarily be at the front of that line.” Indeed, as Sound Transit board member (and light rail opponent) Rob McKenna observes, the Bush administration “made it clear they’re not tearing up the FFGA. But it will probably have to be changed.”

Still McKenna notes, Sound Transit “couldn’t have done anything more to antagonize Capitol Hill, DOT, and the Bush Administration.”