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Originally published July 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 25, 2008 at 1:44 PM

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Sound Transit sending voters $17.9 billion rail-and-bus plan

Sound Transit is putting a $17.9 billion rail and bus plan on the November ballot, in hopes that voters overlook this year's economic slowdown and think long-term.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

What the $17.9 billion would buy

Voters in November will consider a 15-year, $17.9 billion package of rail and bus projects. If it's approved, sales taxes would increase 0.5 percent, or a nickel per $10 purchase — about $69 per year for an average adult. The measure will be on the ballot in urban King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

Some highlights:

Light rail

Extensions to Lynnwood, the Overlake Transit Center near Microsoft, and north Federal Way by 2023, with some stations opening a few years sooner.

Sounder

Four more commuter trains between Pierce County and Seattle, for a total of 13 weekday round trips, plus parking expansions at train stops.

Express bus

A 17 percent increase in service beginning next year, including more frequent connections from Everett and Lynnwood to Seattle and Bellevue.

Park-and-rides

Money toward new garages in Bothell and Burien, and multi-transit stations (bus, ferry, train) at Mukilteo and Edmonds.

Eastside corridor

A $50 million contribution to possible rail service on the abandoned BNSF Railway route from Renton to Snohomish, if deals and more money are obtained.

First Hill streetcar

$120 million for a streetcar line from Seattle's Chinatown/

International District to First Hill and Capitol Hill.

Sound Transit is putting a $17.9 billion rail and bus plan on the November ballot, in hopes that voters overlook this year's economic slowdown and think long-term.

More than two-thirds of the money would be spent to build 34 miles of light-rail extensions, reaching the Overlake Transit Center near Microsoft in 2021, and Lynnwood and north Federal Way by 2023.

Late next year, light-rail service begins from downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; a north line to Capitol Hill and Husky Stadium is already scheduled for completion in 2016.

Transit board members voted unanimously Thursday to send the plan, and its accompanying sales-tax increase, to the public a year after a combined Roads & Transit package was routed at the polls. Supporters hope that a transit-only version will fare better because rising gas prices are nudging more people out of their cars. Also, the presidential race is expected to bring out younger voters who would support transit.

"I don't know if the benefit of Sound Transit 2 is going to outweigh the burden of the tax increase. But for heaven's sake, let the voters decide the issue," said board member and Metropolitan King County Councilmember Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac. "If we didn't put it on the ballot we would simply be a roadblock, instead of letting people speak their mind."

Board Chairman Greg Nickels, the Seattle mayor, argued that the proposed 0.5 percent sales-tax increase, averaging $69 a year per adult, is comparable to a tankful of gas. "Every time we pay at the pump we are fueling the status quo. This package allows us to break away and get out of our cars," he said.

Although they voted to put the plan before voters, two members of the 18-person board oppose it: King County Executive Ron Sims, and Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, R-Federal Way. Sims tried Thursday to add another $120 million to the package to subsidize a rapid increase in express-bus trips by King County Metro, but was turned down. A former Sound Transit board chairman, Sims now favors bus-rapid transit over light rail in some corridors.

"We just told tens of thousands of Metro riders that for the next eight years, they're either going to be standing, or watching buses pass them by," Sims said.

Sims, who campaigned against last year's Roads & Transit plan, said he didn't know yet whether he will campaign against this year's measure. If he does, the fight would be lonelier: The Sierra Club, his close ally in 2007 against the 20-year, $38 billion Roads & Transit plan, is already campaigning for the new transit-only sequel.

Voters in urban King, Snohomish and Pierce counties will decide whether to increase the sales tax by a nickel per $10 purchase.

Nickels and other advocates promote it as a leaner plan than last year's. However, the tax rate is the same. The new plan builds shorter light-rail lines, until voters someday approve more extensions.

"You can't fool the public by saying this is a lower investment when the taxes are the same," said Jim Horn, president of the Eastside Transportation Association, a pro-bus-and-roads group backed by mall developer Kemper Freeman.

The proposed sales-tax increase would end in 2038, about 15 years after construction is finished, unless voters approve more projects, said Finance Director Brian McCartan.

In an nod to bus users, the agency decided Thursday to increase bus service by nearly one-fifth, beginning next year if the measure passes. On busy Everett and Lynnwood routes, service would improve to a trip every 15 minutes at peak times, while other corridors have yet to be chosen.

The move brought state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, who represents Gov. Christine Gregoire, into the "yes" column. Hammond also worked out an informal agreement with Joni Earl, Sound Transit's chief executive officer, that Sound Transit would pay for seismic strengthening of the I-90 floating bridge, when light-rail tracks are added there.

Also Thursday, BNSF Railway agreed to four more round-trip Sounder commuter trains between Pierce County and Seattle, gradually from 2011 to 2015, for $185 million. Board member John Ladenburg, the Pierce County executive, said that's a huge win, because it protects Sound Transit from cost increases after the election. He would have voted "no" otherwise, he said.

One big question is the light-rail route in downtown Bellevue. The plan assumes an elevated or surface route. But if a tunnel is chosen, that would add $500 million and eat up the money to reach Overlake. According to Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit planning and policy director, a tunnel would need city funds, private-sector money, or a downtown taxing district.

The state Expert Review Panel this week urged the agency to reach "closure on this issue" before voters make their decision.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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