For those on the list who live in Seattle or the Pacific northwest of the
USA. Just what is going on there and do you have any more details? Dawson
Light-rail opponents outline objections
by Andrew Garber
Seattle Times staff reporter
Light-rail critics renewed their attack on Sound Transit last night,
bringing in outside consultants to a packed forum to raise doubts about the
$2.5 billion project.
There was standing-room only during the sometimes tense session at the King
Two consultants from California joined a panel of mostly local critics to
dissect the project, which would stretch 21 miles from SeaTac to the
The light-rail project, panelists said, is over budget, it won't reduce
congestion and Sound Transit is hiding information from the public.
"The costs have spiraled into the hundreds of millions. I'm greatly
concerned about where we're headed with Sound Transit," said Peter
Steinbrueck, a Seattle City Council member who is part of a coalition
calling for a review of the agency's finances and its ability to build light
The coalition, which also includes King County Council members Maggi Fimia
and Rob McKenna, organized last night's discussion.
They have argued Sound Transit should be audited before the agency accepts
$500 million in federal money for the project. Congress is reviewing an
agreement that would provide Sound Transit the money.
Sound Transit officials were invited to last night's event but declined to
participate, saying it was stacked against the agency. However, Greg
Nickels, vice chairman of Sound Transit's board, made brief comments at the
start of the session.
Nickels said light rail is needed, but Sound Transit will not go forward if
it doesn't have the money to complete the project. "The numbers have to line
up, or it's a no-go."
Thomas Rubin, a consultant and former chief financial officer for the
Southern California Rapid Transit District in Los Angeles, led off the panel
He questioned whether Sound Transit has the ability to complete the
light-rail system. "In my opinion, you have a project out of control that
could be $1 billion over budget," Rubin said.
This isn't the first time he has criticized a light-rail project. Rubin
worked to defeat a light-rail project in San Antonio last spring. He also
has worked with Wendell Cox, a nationally known light-rail critic, and he's
worked locally with the Save Our Valley group in Rainier Valley that has
been critical of light rail.
Last night, Rubin gave an overview of cost overruns for a rail project in
Los Angeles and for other transit projects across the country.
Rubin argues that federally funded transit projects almost always go way
In an interview before last night's panel discussion, Rubin said his
analysis of 22 federally funded rail projects in the 1990s found 18 had cost
overruns, averaging 33.5 percent.
He used Los Angeles as an example, saying a rail project there went several
hundred million dollars over budget.
"That's about the worst case I know of," he said. "It's not unusual to find
50 percent cost growth."
However, a recent U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) study had different
The GAO last year examined 14 federally funded transit projects and found
that about 60 percent of them, in cities such as Denver, Portland, Salt Lake
City and Sacramento, were on schedule and in the black. Only three of the
projects were more than 7 percent over budget.
Portland is a nearby example of a light-rail project, with a 3-mile tunnel,
that came in on schedule in 1998 and within its $963 million budget. The
tunnel had about an $80 million cost overrun because engineers ran into
crumbly rock, but the project still came in on budget because enough money
was set aside in reserve to handle the problem.
"Clearly not all projects go over budget," Phyllis Scheinberg, who heads
GAO's research on transportation, said earlier. "It doesn't have to be a
Ron Stauffer, who works with Scheinberg at the GAO, said the federal
government scrutinized projects much more carefully after what happened in
"The Federal Transit Administration is doing a much better job of getting
things nailed down" before handing out money, he said.
Stauffer questioned Rubin's analysis of transit projects. "I don't think
that would jibe with what we found," he said.
In talking about Sound Transit cost overruns, Rubin said last night that the
biggest potential budget buster is the 4 1/2-mile tunnel Sound Transit plans
Rubin said the tunnel could easily cost $400 million more than the agency
No one knows for sure what Sound Transit will spend on the tunnel, a fact
acknowledged by one of the panelists, Hugh Cronin, a tunneling consultant
from Costa Mesa, Calif.
"Maybe (Sound Transit's) estimates are fine," he said in an interview before
the panel discussion. "That is one possible scenario."
Last night, Cronin said sources in the construction industry had told him
the low bid for the Sound Transit tunnel was about $800 million and the high
bid about $900 million. He would not say where his information came from.
Cronin called for Sound Transit to release more information.
Sound Transit has budgeted almost $560 million, including a contingency
fund, to dig the tunnel and hollow out underground stations.
The agency selected Modern Transit Constructors in August as the finalist to
dig the tunnel. Sound Transit has said Modern Transit's initial estimate for
the project came in substantially over budget, but figures have not been
Sound Transit said it plans to get the price of digging the tunnel down
Panelists last night also again questioned creating a light-rail system,
arguing it would not reduce congestion in the Seattle area.
Chuck Collins, former director of King County Metro Transit, was one of the
presenters. Collins has said it would be cheaper and more effective to take
the money going to light rail and invest it in buses.
In an interview before the panel discussion, Collins said he recommends
investing in more car-pool lanes, adding more van pools and more buses and
making all the rides free.
Such a plan would pull far more people off the roads than light rail, and it
could be done for substantially less money, he said.
Bob White, executive director of Sound Transit, has said his agency has
never "argued (light rail) would reduce congestion or solve congestion."
Light rail, he said, is an alternative way to travel. It does no good, he
said, to reduce bus fares or put more buses on the road if they end up stuck
Research shows that making bus rides free doesn't necessarily get people out
of their cars, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State
Studies have found that free rides encourage people to get on the bus when
they don't really need a ride, Hallenbeck said in an interview before last
What motivates people is convenience, not cost, he said, and cars for most
people are still far more convenient than taking a bus.
Andrew Garber's phone message number is 206-464-2595. His e-mail address is
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