SEATTLE — Facing mounting criticism over a proposal to tunnel under Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for a light rail system, the Sound Transit board has decided to appoint an independent board to review the tunnel plan.
The board created the panel Thursday, responding to critics from a group calling itself Sane Transit, which has complained the expensive project will siphon off money for buses and other existing transportation systems.
The massive project, which will not be completed until 2006, will create a 21-mile light rail line from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, through Seattle’s downtown and under Capitol Hill and the Lake Washington Ship Canal. It will terminate in the city’s University District.
Though the tunnel itself was budgeted at $557 million, media reports have said that bids for the project have come in between $800 million and $900 million. The scrutiny helped prompt the review.
"There has been an erosion of public confidence in Sound Transit," said Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, a Sound Transit board member. "What we’re beginning is a process to restore that confidence."
The review panel, which will consist of engineering and financial experts, will be assembled by early November and will review the plan before Sound Transit completes its budget and contracts on Jan. 25.
Congress is reviewing a $500 million funding proposal for the central Seattle segment of the rail system. Despite the prospect of federal money, Sound Transit officials are questioning whether it would be cheaper to build a single, large tunnel rather than the two smaller tunnels first proposed.
Sane Transit issued a statement Thursday saying that the review panel is a "step in the right direction," but that it should review the entire rail system, not just the tunnel under Capitol Hill.
The group, which consists of politicians and private citizens whose homes and businesses would be disrupted by construction, also questioned whether the review panel would be truly independent since it would be appointed by Sound Transit’s board.
Construction on the light rail project is to begin in the spring.
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