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Originally published June 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 16, 2008 at 12:32 AM

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$4 gas to fuel new light-rail vote?

Sensing a new political climate, board members are talking about running a fall ballot measure calling for commuter rail service as far as Lynnwood and Federal Way.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

The phenomenon of $4-a-gallon gasoline is creating new urgency for Sound Transit to try another ballot measure this fall that would expand the light-rail system.

Just two months ago, the transit board's three Snohomish County members questioned whether the agency would be ready to go back to voters this year — especially if the proposed rail line stopped at Northgate.

But now board members are talking about whether they can stretch the rail line to Lynnwood, instead of stopping it at Northgate, five miles shy of the King/Snohomish line.

Representatives from South King County also are seeking support to push the line beyond SeaTac to Federal Way.

"I think we do find ourselves in a slightly different climate because of the gas issue," said board member Deanna Dawson, an Edmonds city councilwoman. "We've seen [bus] ridership spike throughout the region, as people try to get out of their cars rather than pay higher gas prices."Seattle-area drivers now pay an average of about $4.30 a gallon, up more than $1 since last November's failed road-and-transit vote. Transit ridership is also up — some 6 percent in King County compared with a year ago.

"People have had it. They don't want to wait," said board Vice Chair Claudia Thomas, of Lakewood in south Pierce County.

Last year, voters in urban Snohomish, King and Pierce counties trounced the $38 billion "Roads & Transit" proposition that included a 0.5 percent sales-tax increase to build 50 miles of rail over 20 years.

After the loss, Sound Transit began studying a scaled-back, 12-year approach, with only 18 to 23 miles of new Link light rail, and perhaps a slightly lower tax increase.

That caused a backlash from north-enders, including Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, who argued to keep the big, more ambitious 2007 transit package in play.

The latest thinking, Dawson said, is to seek a construction timeline of between 12 and 20 years, with rail going to the Lynnwood Transit Center, a couple of miles shorter than what was proposed last year.

Similar debate is under way to the south, where Federal Way and Des Moines officials oppose a lesser plan that would stop short of their cities.

"The communities I represent feel they're getting shortchanged on this proposal," said transit-board member Pete von Reichbauer, of Federal Way.

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On the Eastside, a 12-year plan might have rail extending across Lake Washington to Overlake Hospital Medical Center near downtown Bellevue. Last year's plan promised light rail reaching all the way to Microsoft in Redmond.

At an Everett forum last week, Sound Transit planning director Ric Ilgenfritz downplayed the dilemma, saying the 12-year plan would still "keep pace with the program that was established last year."

In other words, voters would be approving the next segments of what Sound Transit envisions as a regional system stretching from Everett to Redmond to Tacoma.

"The theory here is as we deliver the Northgate segment, there will be another vote between now and then to extend light rail up the I-5 corridor," he said.

Northgate isn't a hub

Though political and business groups have long extolled extending the rail line from the University of Washington to a Northgate station, it wouldn't really help the suburbs farther to the north.

Community Transit, which provides 160 bus trips a day between Snohomish County and Seattle, would still bypass Northgate and continue to downtown or the University of Washington, rather than losing eight to 10 minutes dropping off commuters who wished to transfer to the trains.

Gauging the odds

The public realizes $4 a gallon isn't a temporary spike and that "somehow, the world has changed," said Chris Vance, a political consultant and former state Republican Party chair. That reality would be an incentive to put another transit tax measure before voters, he said.

However, the stakes are great and transit leaders should demand fresh polls and focus groups to confirm that the odds of passing are high, said Vance.

"Test it. Do not trust your instinct. Do not guess," he said.

Seattle pollster Stuart Elway said that while gasoline prices boost transit use, they also can create anxiety about inflation, making voters reluctant to raise taxes.

Some Sound Transit skeptics argue that if the problem is gasoline, the answer is to increase buses and toll lanes, which can be done relatively fast.

"The relief cannot be provided by Sound Transit; it takes decades to complete their mission," said Mark Baerwaldt, a leader of last year's opposition campaign.

Officials have an Aug. 12 deadline if they want to make the November ballot.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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