Nickels Admits It

Once upon a time, when you asked Greg Nickels what would happen to light rail if the feds decided not to give Sound Transit the much-ballyhooed $500 million grant, he'd ignore the question and boast that light rail would be breaking ground in July 2002. Oh, and he and County Executive Ron Sims were going to Washington, D.C. to shore up the details. And besides, Senator Patty Murray--on the Senate Appropriations Committee--was in the perfect position to slide the money Seattle's way. It's a done deal! Let's break ground!

Meanwhile, Nickels' circular logic about the federal grant has always driven me bonkers. According to Greg, we should start building the light rail line without the necessary federal funding proving to the feds that the community supports the project so Sound Transit can get the federal money that's needed to build the light rail line. Huh?

Never mind how risky that strategy is. Again, what if the feds don't give us the money? After all, our light rail project has been downgraded by the feds because light rail's proposed "starter" line (a 14-mile run from kinda Sea-Tac Airport to downtown Seattle) is a third shorter than the route voters approved in 1996. To reach the U-District (where the line was originally supposed to go), Nickels told me he's actually counting on a second $500 million federal infusion!

I bring this up because, judging from the bombshell Nickels dropped on me last week, he's finally figured out that light rail might not happen. Listen to this exchange:

JOSH FEIT: "Where's the $500 million?"

GREG NICKELS: "We're working hard with our congressional delegation and the FTA [Federal Transit Administration], but we don't have their final word yet."

JOSH FEIT: "I'm suspect of starting the project without that commitment. What's the argument for starting construction without that money?"

(The federal money represents a whopping 20 percent of Sound Transit's construction budget.) Now here comes the bombshell...

GREG NICKELS: "If the feds said no $500 million and took away the viability of the project because there would be no federal partnership, we could turn around and sell that property."

Holy shit. Not only did Nickels finally acknowledge that Sound Transit might not happen, but in so doing, he's put aside his longtime, counterintuitive rationalization (we should start building a project we can't afford so we can get the money to finish it), and seems to be arguing that Sound Transit is a real estate company. Develop land; if the feds don't come through, sell that property--maybe at a neat profit! Sorry, Greg, but the public has been pouring taxes into Sound Transit for a 21-mile light rail line--not a real estate deal.

If Sound Transit can't guarantee that our taxes are going to a light rail line, then the project needs to be stopped--and now.