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Originally published January 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 16, 2009 at 10:53 AM

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Sound Transit gets $813 million federal grant for light-rail line

Sound Transit was awarded an $813 million federal grant Thursday to reduce the local tax burden for a three-mile light-rail tunnel linking Westlake Center, Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Transit wish list

SOUND TRANSIT NAMED THESE PROJECTS in a wish list for federal stimulus money (dollar amounts here represent partial funding).

Tacoma commuter rail: Sounder track construction, including elevated segment near South Tacoma Way, $44 million.

Mountlake Terrace park-and-ride: Build pedestrian bridge and bus station above Interstate 5 for express buses, $10 million.

Buses: Buy buses to meet fast-growing demand, $11 million.

University Link light rail: A contribution to the tunnel would free up money for other projects around Seattle, $54 million.

Tukwila rail station: Construction funds for Sounder stop and 400-space parking lot, $21 million.

Interstate 90 HOV lanes: Finish new car-pool lanes across Mercer Island and Lake Washington, making room for future light rail in the I-90 express lanes, $34 million.

Northgate light rail: Buy land and finish engineering in corridor between Husky Stadium and Northgate, $180 million.

SeaTac light rail: To stretch the line from airport to South 200th Street in three years, $30 million.

Source: Sound Transit letter

to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

Sound Transit was awarded an $813 million federal grant Thursday to reduce the local tax burden for a three-mile light-rail tunnel linking Westlake Center, Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium.

The money, from the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) New Starts program, will be doled out in yearly installments until the project, scheduled to open in 2016, is completed.

The $1.9 billion tunnel won the FTA's top rating because of high population and transit ridership in the area where the line will run. The New Starts money was approved by the Bush administration and comes mainly from federal gasoline taxes.

As members of the Sound Transit staff celebrated the award, they already were asking for another source of federal money — President-elect Obama's federal stimulus plan.

Last week, Sound Transit sent a wish list of eight other projects worth $384 million to its chief patron, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and others in Congress. Four are "shovel ready," meaning they can begin within 180 days.

Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said the agency isn't counting on stimulus money, but more cash would get some voter-approved projects completed earlier.

The biggest stimulus request — $180 million — would pay for real estate and engineering for a line to continue past Husky Stadium to Northgate and would allow it to open by 2018 instead of 2020.

The $813 million awarded Thursday had been expected for the past two years. Sherry Little, acting FTA administrator, signed the pact for the money Thursday at Union Station in Seattle, Sound Transit's headquarters.

"The FTA is going to be with you, every step of the way," said Little, a native Mississippian whose job expires in four days.

Addressing Sound Transit employees, she reminisced about a visit to Seattle in 2003, when she was a Senate staffer monitoring the first Sound Transit light-rail project from downtown to Tukwila. The agency was recovering from near-collapse, after its rail-cost estimates had doubled. Eating lunch in the Pike Place Market, she overheard four men, wearing political buttons, having a "fulsome debate" about rail.

"I realized Seattle was different from any other place I've ever visited," she recounted.

"This guy was so intent on making his point, that he pulled out his ukulele, and began singing his message," Little told a crowd of transit staff. "That made a powerful impression ... " demonstrating to her how interested Seattle people are in getting mass transit built.

In an interview after the signing, Little said that while the economy could affect additional funding under Obama, his transition team is enthused about boosting transit, so odds are good the federal government will contribute more to Seattle in the long term.

Last year, voters approved $18 billion in Sound Transit projects, mainly light rail to reach Lynnwood, Overlake and north Federal Way within 15 years.

At the time, Sound Transit assumed the FTA would chip in $895 million through New Starts — separate from any stimulus money. That figure seems "conservative," based on recent history, said Rick Krochalis, FTA's Seattle regional administrator.

Thursday's $813 million comes on top of $500 million awarded by the FTA in 2003 for light rail from downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. That line is to open later this year.

"The Bush administration has a record of spending more on public transit than any other administration in the past. I would be very surprised if the Obama administration didn't build on that success," Little said.

The state also seeks stimulus money for highway projects. The largest being $277 million to add ramps around the junction of Highway 520 and Interstate 405 in Bellevue, to reduce traffic weaving.

There's no guarantee all or even most of the state's projects will get stimulus money. National demands for road and transit money already are more than double what's being proposed in Congress so far.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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