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Seattle's light-rail project continues roller-coaster ride


Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority’s Link light-rail project already has had enough ups and downs to resemble a roller-coaster — and it’s just taken a couple more twists and turns, including negotiation suspension and the director’s resignation.

The Link Light Rail project is divided into two segments. Tacoma Link, which was scheduled to begin construction this fall; and Central Link, next spring. But in early September, light-rail opponents called for a three-month hold on light-rail related activity and an independent audit of the agency’s cost and ridership estimates; and its Citizen Oversight Panel expressed concern that costs had risen 12 percent from January to June this year. Although the board decided against the three-month hold, it did promise Seattle-area residents it would not proceed unless it could afford to do so.

The project reached a less-bumpy path Oct. 3 when a Congressional committee recommended to Sound Transit a $57 million annual appropriation, which would earmark $50 million for Link light rail following a Federal Transit Administration-recommended $500 million grant for Central Link.

But the project’s path turned uphill when the board in October appointed former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice to head an independent committee to review Link Light Rail — specifically, whether a contract under negotiation for a Capitol Hill/Portage Bay tunnel was sound and whether the agency’s financial plan could support it.

On Nov. 16, Rice was released from this obligation when the board suspended tunnel negotiations. The agency had budgeted $560 million for the 4.5-mile tunnel; contractor-elect Modern Transit Constructor estimates the tunnel would cost $728 million to design and build.

"In October the board committed to only go forward with the tunnel if we knew we could pay for it," said Board Chair Dave Earling in a prepared statement. "This ‘time out’ will help the board decide what the right next steps are."

Those next steps would include Sound Transit staff reports to the board in December to explain why the tunnel estimate is different from projections; alternatives for getting light rail to the University District including cost-reduction ideas; an estimate of the total cost to construct an operating light-rail system between SeaTac and the University District; and an open process to discuss alternatives and include the public in those discussions.

In the most recent twist, Paul Bay, director of the light rail program tendered his resignation, stating, "I believe that fresh project leadership will provide [Bob White, Sound Transit executive director] and the Sound Transit board with a better chance of regaining the public confidence necessary to move forward," adding that as project leader, he assumed responsibility for any mistakes in judgment.

Bay plans to remain in his position for an undetermined period while the board hires his successor.

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 11/20/2000