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Originally published Thursday, July 14, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Transit board likely to OK light-rail link to Sea-Tac

The Sound Transit board today is expected to approve plans and financing to extend light rail to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, one...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Sound Transit board today is expected to approve plans and financing to extend light rail to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, one of the transit agency's most cherished goals.

To make it happen, the board is poised to authorize for the first time an exception to a 9-year-old policy that limits how much the agency can borrow.

Board members say the $244 million extension's importance justifies the exception. "You only consider doing it when the goal line is in sight," Tacoma City Councilman Kevin Phelps, the board's finance chairman, said last month.

The schedule calls for trains to start running by December 2009, in time for the 2010 Vancouver, B.C., Winter Olympics. But there's a cloud of uncertainty over the "Airport Link" project that wasn't there a week ago.

The 1.7-mile light-rail extension to the airport from Tukwila is part of a complex plan to reconfigure access to the airport that hinges on yet another transportation project: adding a third eastbound lane to Highway 518, the freeway that connects Sea-Tac to Interstate 5.

The state gas-tax increase legislators approved this spring included money to build the lane. Last week, however, backers of Initiative 912, which would repeal the tax, turned in nearly twice the number of signatures needed to place the measure on the November ballot.

If it passes, most money for the third lane would disappear. And officials at the Port of Seattle, which runs the airport, have said that without the third lane, Airport Link couldn't be built.

At the least, I-912 could affect the construction schedule for the extension, which Sound Transit and the Port have described in staff reports as "ambitious" and "very aggressive."

"There is not really a day to be wasted along the way," said Mark Reis, the airport's managing director.

But Port and Sound Transit officials say I-912 hasn't affected their planning yet. Today's board vote remains a major milestone for a project that spent nearly four years in limbo.

The airport was included in Sound Transit's original plan for a 21-mile light-rail line from SeaTac to Seattle's University District. Cost overruns and changes in airport-expansion plans forced the agency to scale back the project in 2001 to a 14-mile line from downtown Seattle to a park-and-ride lot in Tukwila.

That segment, under construction now, is scheduled to open in mid-2009.

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Jubilant Port and Sound Transit leaders announced last December that they had found a way to extend light rail from Tukwila to the airport. But they also said it wouldn't happen without the third lane on 518, which at the time wasn't funded.

Here's how the projects are connected:

The airport light-rail station would be built near the northeast corner of the parking garage, displacing "return to terminal" ramps. Replacement ramps would be built on the North Airport Expressway near South 160th Street, just south of Highway 518.

The Port and Sound Transit have agreed the light-rail station won't be built until after those ramps are finished. And, because traffic sometimes backs up from eastbound 518 onto the northbound expressway past 160th, the new ramps won't open until the third lane is added to 518 between the airport and I-5.

State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Linda Mullen said yesterday that work on some projects funded by the gas-tax increase could be stopped until Initiative 912's fate is known.

All projects, including the third lane on 518, are being reassessed, she said.

But Reis said planning work on 518 should continue at least through the November election because the Department of Transportation is paying for it with money from the Port, not the new gas tax.

Reis and Ahmad Fazel, Sound Transit's light-rail director, said their agencies' work plans for the rest of the year won't be affected by I-912 and any uncertainty over the 518 project's funding.

Both Airport Link and the airport-access project to which it is tied still are in the paperwork phase, they said. Construction isn't scheduled to start until late next year at the earliest, long after the initiative's outcome is known.

The airport extension would be paid for mostly with borrowed money: Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said $221 million in bonds would be sold to finance the $243 million project. Principal and interest payments should total about $450 million, he said.

In 1996, when Sound Transit asked voters to tax themselves to pay for rail and bus projects, the agency said it would use debt conservatively. The board adopted a policy that the ratio of net revenues to debt-service payments — principal and interest — would not drop below 1.3-to-1 in any year.

To help pay for Airport Link, that ratio would be reduced in South King County to 1.15-to-1, leaving a smaller cushion and permitting more borrowing.

"This is part of the slippery slope; we don't like it," said John Niles of the anti-rail Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives. "They can't afford to build within the parameters they've established."

But Brian McCartan, Sound Transit's deputy finance director, told the finance committee last month that Sound Transit's policies still are more conservative than those of many transit agencies.

"We are pushing the envelope from a very conservative position," Phelps agreed. "Getting to the airport is priority No. 1."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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