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Originally published Tuesday, March 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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State budget cuts could hit I-90 light rail

As they look for budget cuts, state lawmakers are backing out of their earlier $29 million commitment to help Sound Transit build light rail across the Interstate 90 Floating Bridge.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

As they look for budget cuts, state lawmakers are backing out of their earlier $29 million commitment to help Sound Transit build light rail across the Interstate 90 Floating Bridge.

The state had agreed to pay for new car-pool lanes on the outer roadway in both directions so the existing express lanes could be replaced by light-rail tracks.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said the new car-pool lanes need to be done by 2014 for light-rail construction to happen in time for service to Bellevue by 2020 and Overlake by 2021. Voters were promised the Eastside line in last fall's Proposition 1, a sales-tax increase to support three suburban rail-line extensions.

In the Senate transportation budget, proposed last week, money for car-pool lanes on the bridge was delayed until 2019 — in other words, it's unfunded.

Rail backers say the state is thwarting the will of local voters.

"Taxpayers own this structure, and the same taxpayers voted for light rail," said Dow Constantine, D-West Seattle, a member of the Sound Transit Board and the Metropolitan King County Council.

"I think it is a betrayal to the voters, especially Eastside voters who are counting on the commitment to get rail," said Bill LaBorde, state policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition. (Sound Transit is a contributor to the coalition's education fund.)

The car-pool lanes are among 31 highway projects delayed until after 2016.

Lawmakers admit that by then, a combination of declining gas-tax revenue and high bond debt will leave few dollars for new projects. Tolls or other taxes in the 2010s would be needed to keep promises made in the 2000s, when Olympia boosted gas taxes by 14-½ cents a gallon.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said Monday she would work for negotiations on the car-pool-lane issue. "I don't think the story's yet written on this," she said.

State Sen. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island, said Sound Transit will have to pay for access to I-90 anyway and the $29 million car-pool-lane cost would become part of that discussion.

It may be mind-boggling to imagine that a standoff over $29 million might delay a $2.8 billion rail project.

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But despite last fall's vote for a higher sales tax, Sound Transit leaders insist every dollar counts now. Two weeks ago, its finance director said the recession would reduce long-term revenues, and perhaps blow a $2.1 billion hole in the voter-approved $18 billion, 15-year expansion plan.

Jarrett, a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, said to raise money for the new car-pool lanes, the state could charge solo drivers a toll to enter the current express lanes and, later, the new car-pool lanes.

The highway budget mess is seeping into this year's race for the King County executive seat being vacated by Ron Sims, who has been nominated for the deputy secretary's post at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Jarrett is running, and so is Constantine, as well as a second transit-board member, Larry Phillips, of Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood.

Phillips said the state has a duty to fund car-pool lanes to keep faith with agreements signed in 1976 and 2004, which called for transit lanes on the I-90 water crossing.

"We've kept our agreement, so it sounds like Fred Jarrett wants to go back on the state's commitment to the region," Phillips said. Jarrett emphasized he endorsed the 2008 ballot measure to expand rail. He said as an Eastsider, he considers I-90 light rail a priority, but "legislators in Yakima and Spokane don't place as high a priority on this project as they do on projects that benefit the whole state."

Michael Ennis, transportation analyst for the conservative Washington Policy Center, said Sound Transit should bear the full cost, because the agency promised two-way car-pool and bus lanes as part of the 1996 Sound Move ballot measure.

Meanwhile, the Senate's proposed $4.3 billion, two-year transportation budget preserves funding for six of the state's biggest megaprojects: car-pool lanes on Interstate 5 in Tacoma, reconstruction of I-90 east of Snoqualmie Pass, replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct through Seattle, the North Spokane Corridor of Highway 395, partial funding for a new Highway 520 floating bridge; and expansions on I-405 around the Eastside. A similar House proposal was released Monday.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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