Estimate for light rail line rises 50 percent

Associated Press

SEATTLE — The estimated cost of a light rail line has risen by 50 percent to $3.6 billion, and trains will be three years later getting out of the station under the latest plan released by Sound Transit.

Despite the $1.2 billion increase in the cost for the 22-mile line between the University District and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, agency officials said Tuesday the project could still be completed without a tax increase.

Joni Earl, who recently became the three-county transit agency’s chief executive, said pressure to meet the original timetable was driving up costs unnecessarily.

Extending the completion date from 2006 to 2009 provides three more years for collection of transit-linked sales and motor vehicle excise taxes, and the agency also has that much more time to apply for another $325 million in federal grants, officials said.

"We hope the public stays with us, because we believe the public still wants this project," Earl said.

She said the extended tax collections would not require voter approval, but that was questioned by an agency board member, Rob McKenna, who also serves on the King County Council. He noted that the transit proposal approved by voters in 1996 specified a 10-year schedule.

Express bus routes through King, Pierce and Snohomish counties and commuter trains over existing railroad tracks already have begun under the plan.

The new budget and timetable were presented Tuesday by agency director Bob White for action by the board next month.

The board is expected to decide by Jan. 11 whether to sign a contract with the Federal Transit Administration for a $500 million light rail grant.

White apologized in a memorandum for faulty earlier estimates that placed the cost of the light rail line at $2.4 billion.

"In the crush to complete the Link light rail project by 2006, staff did not bring everything it should have to the board’s attention as early as it should have, including some big issues like how the changing scope was affecting schedule and budget," White wrote. "For that I am truly sorry."

He emphasized that the new budget and schedule were prepared partly with the guidance of Lyndon "Tuck" Wilson Jr., former director of the Tri-Met transit system in Portland, Ore., who became interim light rail director last month.

Wilson replaced Link light rail director Paul Bay, who quit Nov. 17 after the board suspended contract talks with the firm hired to build a 4 1/2-mile rail tunnel beneath Capitol Hill in Seattle because of escalating cost projections for that part of the project.

White’s memo said the cost of the tunnel is now pegged at $800 million, up from $500 million.

An even bigger increase, $385 million, was for other construction and equipment.

The biggest proportional increase was a fourfold jump amounting to $96 million in the cost of negotiating agreements with other entities, including the University of Washington, the cities of Seattle, Tukwila and SeaTac, and King County Metro Transit.

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