Will Bellevue bail out light rail?

With Sound Transit hungry for cash, Seattle politicians are looking east.

The hunt is on for more money at Sound Transit.

The agency's plan for a $1.8 billion light-rail system stretching from Sea-Tac to the University District has grown ever more costly since it was approved by voters in 1996. The price of the needed real estate has climbed, and riled-up neighborhoods are clamoring for better stations and other goodies. Meanwhile, downtown business interests and political leaders desperately want to see the light-rail line extended to Northgate—which would add another $370 million to the price tag. Without it, they fear, downtown Seattle could be overrun with buses and traffic congestion made worse than it is today. (See "Downtown Showdown," SW, 7/15.)

Yet the federal government has so far been chintzy with its support—delivering only half the dollars Sound Transit planned for. And now Sound Transit's Seattle taxes are forecast to come up a bit short as well. All this could translate into a serious financial squeeze.

But there's one part of the Sound Transit system that's swimming in cash: the Eastside, home to the world's wealthiest man, the place that defines "embarrassment of riches." Sound Transit gets its money from a sales tax and a portion of the car license tab tax, and it turns out that Eastsiders are not only big spenders, they also tend to own somewhat pricier automobiles than the rest of us. As a result, East King County has been throwing off considerably more cash than Sound Transit expected—a $15 million surplus last year alone.

That money is being drooled over by Seattle politicians, who would like to see some of it used to rescue light rail in Seattle. "There is some wisdom in saying that the Seattle segment should be paid for regionally," says King County Council member Cynthia Sullivan, who serves on the Sound Transit board. Senior aides to Mayor Paul Schell say that the mayor, too, wants Sound Transit to consider a "regional" spending plan as one way to help get to Northgate.

The trouble is, that idea goes against what voters approved in 1996. Back then, in order to counteract fears that light rail was a risky, Seattle-centric sinkhole, officials at Sound Transit pledged that areas outside of Seattle would only be responsible for the transit projects in their own backyard. Sound Transit divided Puget Sound into five subareas and pledged that the amount of tax money collected in each would be spent on services there.

"We had to assure voters that the monies wouldn't be sucked up by Seattle," says Ann Kirk Davis, a Sound Transit board member from Lakewood. "We really made a commitment." Taxes collected in Lakewood, for instance, are being used to pay for a commuter rail station. Eastside money is paying for a series of express buses and HOV ramps.

But Cynthia Sullivan argues that splitting the tax money by region "is a terrible way to build a system. We built Metro on the notion that clean water is a benefit for all. You can't get anywhere without going through Seattle. This is a regional system and there ought to be a single pot."

It's not hard to see the appeal of the single-pot theory. Sound Transit forecasters predict that by 2006—when the bus-and-train system is supposed to be up and running—Sound Transit will have collected about $120 million more from East King County than was originally anticipated. The Eastside cash machine could be used to support another $800 million or so in bonds as well—enough to bring light rail to Northgate, and then some. (By contrast, Sound Transit expects to max out bonds in Seattle.)

But Rob McKenna, a King County Council member from Bellevue who is on the Sound Transit board, says the "equity" principle was "the cornerstone" of the Sound Transit election. He says the Eastside will find plenty of future uses for that money, thank you very much, such as constructing an HOV expressway across highway 520. Noting that the Eastside is already paying for Sound Transit express buses that travel to Seattle, McKenna argues, "I don't think there's equity as it is. We sure as heck are not giving any more ground."

An opponent of Sound Transit during the '96 election, McKenna warned back then that Seattleites would make a run for the suburban money. And while he says it's "highly unlikely" they will succeed, he's not willing to discount the possibility. Changing the equity policy would require a two-thirds vote from the Sound Transit board, whose 18 members include only four who directly represent Seattle: Sullivan, Schell, King County Council member Greg Nickels, and Seattle City Council member Richard McIver. However, there are board members from places such as Everett and Federal Way who are also anxious to see light rail reach them as soon as possible.

Board member Jim White, the mayor of Kent, says he would be open to the idea of lending money between regions, "if that's what it takes." But McKenna argues that the loan strategy is no different, and there would be no guarantee of getting the money back.

For the moment, the equity issue is only being discussed informally. But as the Sound Transit board is forced to make some critical decisions about light rail in the next several weeks, the sound of the Eastside cash gusher is likely to be a sweet siren song, and the debate is likely to come out into the open. After all, the board might wonder, what's more important to the region: a train to Northgate or a jewel-encrusted red velvet bus to Bellevue Square?

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