I DIDN'T THINK my question was outlandish. Nonetheless, Sound Transit wouldn't answer it over the telephone. Their spokesman wanted to set up a personal meeting--and what a meeting it was. I was invited down to the agency's spacious digs at 401 South Jackson Street, where I was seated at a large wooden conference table to talk with Sound Transit Director of Finance & Administration Hugh L. Simpson, Sound Transit Finance & Budget Manager Brian McCartan, and Sound Transit Media Relations Specialist Denny Fleenor. (I was a little embarrassed. "Why," I thought, "do so many people at this $62.5 million agency have nothing better to do on a Thursday morning than meet with me--one reporter with one simple question?")

"How are we going to pay for the $2.5 billion light rail line?" I asked. I had taken a long, hard look at Sound Transit's numbers, and they didn't add up. The agency wasn't going to be able to build its $2.5 billion light rail line for $2.5 billion. So how did Sound Transit intend to pay for it? And how much was it really going to cost? Long pause. Finally, after telling me it was a complicated answer, throwing a lot of numbers around, and saying they needed to consult even more colleagues, the three Sound Transit administrators didn't answer. Now, truly embarrassed, I left and wrote my article ["Mystery Train," Josh Feit, April 20]. This was last April, and it turned out to be one article among many I would write over the next several months, basically harping on the same question and getting the same misleading answers.

Well, now--along with a nauseated public--I know exactly why the Sound Transit Director of Finance & Administration couldn't answer my perfectly reasonable query about the agency's math. With a revised price tag of $3.6 billion (not the $2.5 billion Sound Transit had been promising), the cost of our world-class, 22-mile, SeaTac-to-U-District light rail line was underestimated by $1.1 billion. That's with a B, and that's without getting to Northgate! As for how we're paying for it: Voters will have to pony up the .4 percent sales tax and the .3 percent Motor Vehicle Excise Tax three years longer than we agreed to in 1996. That's right, we have no choice but to give more money to an agency that has lied to us and radically altered the project we originally voted for.

And by "radically altered" I'm not simply referring to the obvious shockers, like Sound Transit deleting nearly 20 percent of the planned stations, disrupting neighborhoods far beyond initial assurances to the contrary, or backtracking on a voter-approved provision that assured taxpayers from one region that they would not foot the bill for work that benefits voters in another region. While those changes are discouraging--and the last may be illegal--they're not the ones I mean. No, I'm talking about a more fundamental alteration: Voters approved light rail because we were told it would relieve traffic congestion and gridlock. Obviously, in order to ease road gridlock, we need to pull cars off roads and put butts in public transportation seats. In order to do this, we need to increase the capacity (seats) of our public transportation system. All of this is obvious, right?

Well, guess what? Sound Transit's light rail plan does NOT do any of this. Light rail won't pull cars off roads and it won't put butts in seats on public transport, because it doesn't increase the number of seats available.

"Any transportation system needs to be judged on this criteria [relieving congestion]," says former Metro director and Sound Transit critic Chuck Collins. "And obviously, light rail rates miserably."

Using Sound Transit's own documents, Collins cites the following zingers:

· Metro bus service already sends 9,000-plus seats per hour through the bus tunnel. Light rail will only send 6,000-plus through. And that's not until 2020. If you include standing passengers, bus capacity is currently 13,000, while light rail will only be 11,500 by 2020.

· For every 1,000 cars heading north or south along the proposed light rail corridor during rush hour, light rail will remove just one car. In short, picture this: two miles of two-lane traffic at a bumper-to-bumper standstill. Light rail would subtract merely one car from the traffic jam. (Light rail would subtract about 1 car per every 400 when tallying total daily traffic--about one fourth of one percent.)

· With all of the money it's spending on light rail, HOV lanes, and express bus service, Sound Transit promises to increase Metro ridership by 10 percent over a 10-year period. That's one percent a year. Why bother? Metro increased ridership by five percent in just one year, between 1998 and 1999. And the bus agency bumped it three percent the previous year.

"If the cost of eliminating one car in every thousand is over $3 billion," Collins concludes, "then we don't have a solution."

But won't light rail ease congestion by at least getting buses off the streets? Hardly. As Seattle's downtown business community has complained for months now, nearly 150 buses will be displaced when light rail takes over the downtown bus tunnel. Forget relieving gridlock. Sound Transit is going to create gridlock. Indeed, because the rail line is so short, most rail passengers will have to rely on buses to complete their trips. And those buses will be trapped in traffic jams.

Ultimately, Sound Transit's long-overdue acknowledgment that light rail is $1.1 billion over budget (about $600 million more than "wild-eyed" critics like Emory Bundy had imagined) is troubling not because of the titanic dollar amount, but because we're about to spend so much money on a system that will do so little. Like any liberal, I'm perfectly willing to help foot the bill for a public transportation system that will improve Seattle's future. But it makes no sense at all to pay extraordinary amounts of money for a "solution" that will make things worse.

Sound Transit talks of the 17-stop (sans Northgate) system as a "spine": the implication being that it will be the backbone of a future system. Unfortunately, in terms of ridership capacity, it's about a third less substantive than the bus system that's already in place. And thanks to light rail's street-grade setup (it will have to stop for traffic lights, and it will block intersections), light rail will not be much faster than the buses already clogging our streets.

Unfortunately, there's $500 million in federal cash with Sound Transit's name on it. It's this promise of federal money--rather than common sense--that is driving public policy. That's a bad recipe. If, rather than doing the right thing (taking a time-out to reassess light rail), Sound Transit signs off on light rail just to avoid losing the federal grant--the public will be stuck with a wildly flawed investment. Sound Transit is holding public hearings from 4:00 to 8:00 p.m. January 8 and 9 at Union Station, 401 South Jackson Street. Please go and tell the agency's board that getting one car in every thousand out of the rush-hour mess isn't good enough.

josh@thestranger.com

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