Light rail up north? It’s iffy

  • Tue Oct 26th, 2010 7:24pm

By Bill Sheets For The Enterprise

When voters two years ago approved a plan to expand the Sound Transit system, they said yes to a ballot measure that called for light rail to be extended to Lynnwood by 2023.

As it turns out, that plan for light rail could turn into more buses, a combination of buses and rail, or a cut-back version of any of those. In the worst extreme, considered unlikely, it could be nothing at all.

As Sound Transit officials begin to plan the expansion in detail, they say they have to study all the possibilities to be eligible for federal grants. This is especially important considering that the recession could cause Sound Transit to fall short of the cash it needs to carry out the plans.

“We’re always in the business of trying to build tomorrow’s system on today’s finances and that’s the challenge,” said Everett City Councilman Paul Roberts, a member of the Sound Transit board of directors.

In 2008, voters approved a $17.9 billion plan to add to the region’s mass transportation system with more trains and buses. The vote raised the sales taxes a half-cent per dollar in the Sound Transit service area in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties.

Tax revenue is already expected to fall $3.9 billion short by 2023.

The plan included an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion for light rail from Northgate to Lynnwood, and expansion of some bus service in Snohomish and North King counties. Some of that service already has been added, some is yet to come. Officials hope to have a plan for further study by next spring and a final plan in place by mid-2012.

The plan put before voters assumed a route from Northgate along I-5 to the Lynnwood Transit Center, with stations at 145th Street Northeast and 185th Street Northeast in King County and in Mountlake Terrace.

Some Sound Transit board members — elected officials from cities and counties who make the final decisions for the agency — say they still believe the final plan for Northgate to Lynnwood likely will include light rail.

Three elected officials represent Snohomish County on the agency’s 18-member board. County Executive Aaron Reardon is the Sound Transit board chairman. He said he, too, understands the need to obtain federal grants.

Still, “I’m very confident the study will yield results that empirically show that the light rail that the voters voted for is indeed the best alternative and the best use for that corridor,” he said.

A light-rail tunnel is currently under construction between downtown Seattle and the University District. In early 2009, Sound Transit received an $813 million federal grant, cutting the local cost of the three-mile, $1.9 billion tunnel nearly in half.

Light rail has been approved for the U-District to Northgate and planning is underway. The next segment on the way to Snohomish County is from Northgate to Lynnwood.

In planning for this segment, in addition to what best moves riders, public opinion will be taken into account, officials say. A series of meetings was held earlier this month and written comments will be accepted through today, Oct. 27.

The 2008 ballot measure read that Sound Transit “would expand and coordinate light-rail, commuter rail, and (beginning 2009) express bus service, and improve access to transit facilities in King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties.”

It’s the text of an initiative, however, that carries the legal weight, said David Ammons, spokesman for the state secretary of state’s office.

He pointed out that past initiatives — such as those raising teacher salaries, reducing class sizes and $30 car tabs — have not always been carried out.

“Recessions happen,” he said. “Even though voters said they want ‘X,’ you may not be able to afford it.”

If funding for the Sound Transit plan falls short, the text of the measure calls for the agency’s board to build the part of the system it deems the most necessary and to adjust the plan as appropriate.

This fallback was not widely publicized during the campaign for the initiative. Nonetheless, the board has always ultimately had the decision-making power, Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said.

Board members say that while obtaining grants is critical, the choice will likely be light rail.

“I think we’re committed to build the system the voters asked us to build,” Roberts said.

Ammons, of the secretary of state’s office, said if light rail is not built, it could be challenged in court — and at the ballot box.

“The decision makers eventually will be on the ballot themselves,” he said.

Bill Sheets writes for the Herald of Everett.