Zombie train

Sound Transit's light rail may look dead, but somehow it keeps on living.

LIGHT RAIL’S imminent demise has been declared more often than Strom Thurmond’s. Yet the Sound Transit board continues to debate, continues to vote, and, in fact, continues to pour hard dollars into a proposal that mayoral candidate Mark Sidran declared, more than four months ago, “dead.” Last week the board voted 12-4 to approve a tentative initial segment that would start at the downtown Convention Center and stop a mile shy of Sea-Tac Airport. Final approval—insofar as any Sound Transit decision can be considered “final”—is expected to come in November.

Can light rail rise again? Or will it be buried under an avalanche of obstructions, not least of which is a still-unsecured $500 million grant from the feds? Here are the top four reasons this train might not make it out of the station.

Reason One: The feds won’t fork over the cash.

Sound Transit board members make it sound like a $500 million grant—on which they’ve staked the future of their $2.1 billion, 14-mile light-rail starter system—is sitting on a government desk somewhere, waiting to be endorsed. At a briefing earlier this month, board members spoke glowingly of the rail line’s imminent approval. Board chair Dave Earling says, “We’ve worked closely with [the federal government] to address [their] concerns, and we’re ready to move forward.”

Well, that’s only partially true. The grant still has to be approved by the federal government, which held up the $500 million earlier this year because of concerns about the agency’s cost estimates, long-term funding assumptions, and proposed construction schedule.

A scathing report by the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Transportation criticized virtually every aspect of the project and concluded that Sound Transit had advanced the grant-application process despite knowing that light rail would cost more and take longer than it claimed at the time.

These concerns may have been addressed on the Senate side, where appropriations committee chair and Washington Sen. Patty Murray has all but promised to give the grant a gold star and send it on its way. Not so, however, on the House side, where Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers—the cantankerous appropriations subcommittee chair who ordered the inspector general to examine Sound Transit’s proposal in the first place—has offered the agency no assurance he’ll give its project a passing grade. “Federal funding is going to be tied to the viability of the full-funding grant agreement,” says Rogers’ spokesman Dan DuBray. And since money will be tight even for projects with existing funding agreements, DuBray adds, “I think that those projects that do not have existing full-funding agreements are further down the list.”

Reason Two: Mark Sidran could get elected mayor.

Hey, it could happen. And if it does, Sidran—who’s declared himself Light Rail Enemy No. 1—could have a direct influence on what action the board takes in future light-rail votes, the first of which will come in November. As one board member among 18, Sidran couldn’t swing a vote alone. But he could encourage board members to appreciate his perspective, especially if, as board member and King County Councillor Rob McKenna claims, more of them are already feeling skeptical about the light-rail proposal. “People are thinking more independently. They’re learning the hard way they can’t believe everything they hear from Sound Transit,” McKenna says.

Reason Three: The economy could tank, taking light rail right down with it.

We’re heading for a recession; the question is, how long and how severe will the downturn be? Local taxes fund 84 percent of Sound Transit’s light rail. When the economy slows down, Sound Transit’s taxes get smaller, too. Sound Transit spokesman Lee Somerstein says “things are too emotional right now” to try to predict how much money the agency will lose.

Yet even Sound Transit’s executive director Joni Earl acknowledges that losses might force the board to change the project yet again. “I would anticipate the board asking us what are the options if we have a decline in our revenue, both in terms of the scope of the project and other funding options that go outside just our tax revenue,” Earl says.

That could mean shifting money around from one end of the project to another—reallocating some of the $410 million set aside to build light rail to North King County, for example, to complete the southern line. Or it could mean dipping into project reserves and built-in contingencies, estimated at around $400 million. Both options are unlikely to placate Sound Transit’s critics, who say the agency’s initial segment, which would take riders almost all the way to the airport, is already a “train to nowhere.”

Reason Four: King County might not hand over the bus tunnel.

The county is scheduled to hand over control of the downtown Seattle transit tunnel, which currently whisks bus commuters beneath crowded downtown streets, to Sound Transit in 2007. The agency would retrofit the tunnel to accommodate buses and light rail, a move critics have said would wreak havoc on downtown traffic by putting hundreds of new buses on the street. King County Council member Maggi Fimia’s comment—”This will devastate the [bus] system we have”—is among the calmer statements that have been made regarding the downtown tunnel.

The transfer requires approval of at least seven of the 13 members of the King County Council. Seven council members recently signaled their skepticism of Sound Transit, albeit with a nonbinding resolution. They indicated the tunnel’s transfer would only occur if Sound Transit provided a detailed plan to extend the line to Northgate and an assurance that allowing light rail in the tunnel would not only “not result in a significant degradation of bus service elsewhere,” but would put more new riders in the tunnel than expanded bus service would. The catch: Three council members are leaving office.

Of the likely new County Council members, at least two—Carolyn Edmonds of Shoreline and Kathy Lambert of Woodinville—are almost certain to fall in the anti-Sound Transit camp; they would replace Fimia, a predictable anti-Sound Transit voter, and Louise Miller, a pro-Sound Transit member, respectively. The third likely winner, Julia Patterson of SeaTac, will probably become the swing vote on the tunnel; her vote would replace that of Les Thomas, who tends to vote against the transit agency. (Patterson did not return a call for comment.)

Whatever happens, Earl is confident the transfer will go forward. “I’m not saying every issue’s a slam dunk by any means, but I think we can work this one out.”

If history is any guide, Earl may be right. As far back as 10 years ago, news writers were predicting “the end of the line” for light rail. And yet, despite all of the predictions, it’s still chugging down the track.