MEET SOUND TRANSIT'S latest obstacle: the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA). In an internal DSA draft memo obtained by The Stranger, the 400-member local business lobby offers up a blistering rejection of Sound Transit's $1.9 billion light-rail plan. The September 13 memo states, "... the Downtown Seattle Association withdraws its past support for the light rail component of Sound Transit and urges the Sound Transit Board as well as local governments... to act immediately to suspend any further commitment to Link light rail."

According to sources familiar with the DSA, Mayor Schell--fearing that the DSA's condemnation would add horsepower to a growing group of light-rail critics who are calling for an independent audit of Sound Transit--convinced the group (which includes local heavies like Nordstrom, Bon Marché, and the Seattle Art Museum) to squelch the report. Schell's biggest concern, obviously, is that a high-profile defection from the light-rail bandwagon would jeopardize the pending $500 million Sound Transit federal grant. However, while the DSA didn't have the chutzpah to go public, the memo--titled "DSA Position Paper on Sound Transit"--speaks for itself. Ultimately, it suggests that Sound Transit (once the bogeyman of disenfranchised neighborhood activists and cranky transit geeks) is now the bane of Seattle's business establishment.

The DSA already made waves last spring when it said it wouldn't support light rail unless the 22-mile line was extended to Northgate. However, after getting political pressure from Mayor Schell and County Executive Ron Sims to get with the program, the DSA came back into the light-rail fold this summer--joining the fight to secure Northgate funding.

Things have clearly changed. Not only does the September 14 memo admit that getting to Northgate isn't "credible," but thanks to a host of new concerns, it concludes that the light-rail system was "poorly conceived" in the first place. In summary, the draft memo raises the following red flags.

· Tunnel bids have reportedly come in "several hundred million dollars over [the $450-$500 million] budget figure."

· "An independent study... by the Washington Research Council... showed that light rail will not increase transit capacity in downtown Seattle, Sound Transit estimates of light rail ridership are highly optimistic, and it is unclear whether Sound Transit's funding plans are realistic."

· "Sound Transit's plan for light rail as it exists today is no longer the plan approved by voters in 1996." Indeed, the report notes that several passenger stations have been removed or deferred from the original plan and says, "The stated budget for just the minimum [light-rail] segment increased from $1.6 million quoted before the 1996 election to $1.9 billion today [in 1995 dollars]--with major costs still unaccounted for."

· The "final route requires more extensive tunneling and neighborhood disruption" than the original plan.

· The DSA also notes, with scorn, that Sound Transit rejected the recent call for an outside audit.

Even more interesting, the DSA memo comes out swinging for the monorail. It states, "...a number of alternatives to light rail systems have been implemented or planned in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Some of the alternatives could be implemented far more quickly and inexpensively than light rail. While these alternatives have been dismissed by advocates for light rail, they have not received adequate consideration by local and state political and civic leaders."

The DSA did not return our calls.

If Congress approves the $500 million federal grant before checking into the concerns raised in the DSA memo, Sound Transit will achieve unstoppable momentum and lock taxpayers into a project plagued by financial unknowns. This is unsound public policy.

josh@thestranger.com

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