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Originally published November 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 1, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Election 2007

Light rail to Tacoma: Is it worth the money?

Sound Transit's plan to extend light rail to Tacoma at a cost of almost $3.4 billion is drawing more criticism than any other part of its...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Travel times in 2030: On your mark, get set ...

Sound Transit says light rail between Seattle and Tacoma is worth the price. But critics say it won't compete with buses and commuter trains, based on ridership and travel time. Here are Sound Transit's travel-time estimates between Westlake Center and Tacoma in 2030:

By train:

66 minutes, including bus transfer

By light rail

70 minutes

By bus

80 minutes

Sound Transit's plan to extend light rail to Tacoma at a cost of almost $3.4 billion is drawing more criticism than any other part of its proposal on next week's ballot.

Both King County Executive Ron Sims, a former Sound Transit chairman, and the Sierra Club, a light-rail advocate, say taking light rail to Tacoma doesn't make much sense.

They argue the projected 70-minute light-rail trip from the Tacoma Dome to downtown Seattle wouldn't be able to compete with the bus and Sounder commuter-rail service that exists now.

"It's the one thing that's the big weakness in this package," said Sims, who chaired the Sound Transit board in 2002 and 2003. "You can't justify it."

Sound Transit officials disagree. They predict strong ridership, and argue that by the time the route is completed, light-rail trains would beat buses to Seattle because of growing traffic congestion.

The proposed $3.36 billion, 19-mile-long, Sea-Tac-to-

Tacoma extension is part of the largest tax package ever put before Washington voters. Light rail from Seattle to Sea-Tac is under construction as part of the line approved by voters in 1996.

Proposition 1 on Tuesday's ballot would increase car-tab and sales taxes in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to improve highways and extend light rail north of Lynnwood, south to Tacoma and east to the Redmond area.

In 2006 dollars, the package is expected to cost nearly $18 billion. Those costs are expected to reach $38 billion over the next 20 years and $47 billion in 50 years.

Sound Transit officials say there's a strong case for extending light rail to Tacoma.

The agency projects that about 45,000 people a day would use the route. It says that out of 12 rail projects reviewed by the federal government in recent years, only one had higher projected ridership than Sound Transit's proposed south and east routes.

Sound Transit also predicts traffic congestion will slow buses down by the time the light-rail system is completed in 20 years.

In 2006, it took an average of 69 minutes to travel by bus from the Tacoma Dome to Westlake in downtown Seattle, Sound Transit said. But by 2030, the agency projects, it will take buses 80 minutes to make the trip — 10 minutes longer on average than light rail.

And Sound Transit argues that light rail would be more reliable because it's not affected by traffic jams.

Besides, the agency says, most people using the route are expected to make shorter trips in Pierce and southern King counties instead of traveling all the way to Seattle. The proposed line would have seven stops from Sea-Tac to Tacoma.

The Sounder commuter trains that now run between Tacoma and Seattle will always be faster, because they travel at higher speeds and make fewer stops.

But Sounder serves a different set of passengers, said Geoff Patrick, a Sound Transit spokesman. He also noted that light rail would run all day while the Sounder trains, which share tracks with freight trains, only run during the commute hours.

Sound Transit also promised that money raised by tax increases would be spent where it's generated. In this case, Pierce County residents said they wanted light rail, Patrick said.

"We heard overwhelmingly that there was preference for a light-rail connection that would offer service throughout the day," he said. "There was no question about public preference for that."

Of the nearly $3.4 billion cost of the route, more than $1.9 billion would come from Pierce County and more than $1.4 billion from King.

Sims said Sound Transit needs a better justification for spending the money. "You can't simply say 'because we want it,' " he said.

At Sims' request, the King County Office of Management and Budget did a rough cost-benefit analysis of each proposed light-rail segment in Proposition 1, as well as bus and commuter rail. The analysis was done before the measure was placed on the ballot.

It estimated that for every $1,000 spent, the Sea-Tac-to-Tacoma extension would carry 69 passengers. By comparison, the analysis found that light rail to Bellevue would carry 106 people per $1,000, and the extension north would move 369 people per $1,000.

Analysts arrived at the estimates by taking projected costs of the projects and dividing them by estimates of how many people would ride each segment.

Sound Transit officials dismissed the analysis. Patrick, in an e-mail, called it "a very bizarre set of calculations that is well outside the boundaries of anything our staff has seen."

Sound Transit said its ridership projections from Sea-Tac to Tacoma are the same as its projections for the light-rail route to the Redmond area.

Sims and the King County Office of Management and Budget stand by their numbers.

"The key is not whether this would be nice to have in 2030," Sims said of the proposal to extend light rail to Tacoma. "If you are looking at investments per thousand, is this where you would build it? Do you get a big bang for the buck? And why would people use it? My thing is, people won't."

In terms of Sound Transit's projected travel times in 2030, Sims and his staff also disagree that growing congestion will make buses slower than light rail.

"You can't project forward and say everything else is going to remain constant except light rail, that's just not the case," Sims said.

He predicts the state will take steps, such as using tolls, to keep the car-pool and bus lanes moving.

"In fact, you're going to see congestion relief," Sims said. "You're going to see lanes that are designed to move your buses."

Plus, Sims questions Sound Transit's projections that most people would ride light rail to places inside Pierce County instead of traveling all the way to Seattle.

"That's not where the jobs are," he said. "I don't know how they can argue that."

Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, the current Sound Transit board chairman, said people shouldn't get hung up on ridership projections.

"First of all, the ridership projections are very speculative. They may be double what we think, and that wouldn't be out of the range of possibility. But what you do know is that once you build a permanent rail corridor, it's there for 100 years," he said.

"We're now 20 years late bringing light rail to Seattle. I don't want to see us be 20 years late to bring it to Tacoma. Now is the right time to bring it there. It's an investment in the future."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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