Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Sound Transit is Now "Moving Dirt" for Link Light Rail Before Securing Essential Federal Funding

by John Niles, Co-Editor, PITF

From Spring, 2003

Sound Transit Board Member Greg Nickels ran for Seattle mayor on a pledge to begin construction of Link Light Rail as soon as possible. In fact, on the day his mayoral victory was confirmed, November 15, 2001 he proclaimed, "We will break ground by, if I have anything to say about it and I suspect I will, July 1.''   He meant the first of July, 2002.

Greg Nickels was joined in this sentiment by former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, who served for over a year in 2001-2 as head of Sound Transit's Link Project Review Committee.  Royer and another member of this Committee wrote in the November 8, 2001 Seattle Post-Intelligencer that Sound Transit should "begin construction immediately on a first segment of the line."

July 1, 2002 came and went without light rail groundbreaking.  So did August 1 and September 1.  In both 2002 and 2003.

On September 13, 2002, ground had still not yet been broken on Link Light Rail, but Sound Transit announced that a "proceed order" had been issued to the demolition contractor to clear buildings on the future site of the Link Light Rail Maintenance and Operations Base on the site of the former Rainier Brewery. 

On Wednesday September 25th, this work began, and is by now completed.  As described by Sound Transit, this demolition is "pre-construction" work, since under rules related to Federal funding, the agency does not yet have permission from Federal Transit Administration to begin construction.  However, Mayor Greg Nickels came up with the phrase "moving dirt" to "prepare for light rail" as a description of this first activity.  He even issued a Mayoral proclamation celebrating this event, posted at .

Since early 2003, Sound Transit officials have been disseminating construction update documents that clearly give the impression that Central Link light rail construction is underway.   Sound Transit officials are emboldened by the FY 2004 White House budget released in early 2003 that lists a $75 million installment of Federal funding for Central Link.  But as a result of Congressional follow up on the independent audit of this project released by the USDOT Inspector General in early July 2003, FTA in September put the FFGA for the project on an indefinite hold. The official groundbreaking and start of construction cannot begin until after the FFGA is executed.

It is likely that the FTA hold will not be released until two Washington State Supreme Court cases on appeal are decided, the I-776 case and the Sane Transit vs. Sound Transit suit.

Another part of "pre-construction" is the digging of an 18 foot diameter test shaft at the planned site of an underground light rail subway station under Seattle's Beacon Hill. There has been no public declaration that this work or any other pre-construction work being undertaken is on what is called the "critical path" of the construction schedule that has light rail opening for service in 2009. This means that some or all of the work now underway does not yet need to be done in order to keep the project on schedule.  And if the project is stopped, the money is wasted.

The preparation of the right of way and the Beacon Hill test shaft mean that Sound Transit has proceeded, quite legally as it turns out, to begin a major, controversial construction project ahead of the Federal grant money that is necessary to pay for it.  

The idea of starting to build a three billion dollar light rail segment without a full and final Federal commitment that funds about a fifth of its budget is reckless. The current action of Sound Transit becomes even crazier when one considers that there is no plan and no realistic prospect for a plan to build beyond the Initial Segment.

Or crazy like a fox?

As former Seattle Mayor Royer declares, "Experience across the country is that completion and operation of a first light-rail segment has resulted in strong public support and federal funding to extend and expand the system."  However, there are several reasons why the happy experience of strong public support claimed to be in our future may not actually emerge in Seattle.

For one thing, the construction will take until 2009.  That's many years of pain.   Throughout the pain there is going to be considerable, continuing opposition to the starter light rail plan because of its negative impacts on the neighborhoods through which it passes. The operations plan shows 272 daily two-car trains 180 feet long running down the median of a four mile stretch of Martin Luther King, Jr. Way every weekday, through 18 ungated street crossings and 10 additional pedestrian crossings.  The safety of this design is questionable.

Also, as is the case now, there may continue to be insufficient funding authority to build a full 24 mile line from Northgate to SeaTac Airport that most if not all elected officials and business supporters of light rail believe to be a necessary minimum length for light rail to be a beneficial project. This is the system promised in the 1996 vote.

As an alternative to light rail, there is considerable, continuing support for other transit plans such as Bus Rapid Transit and Monorail, both of which would benefit from the local and Federal money that light rail would soak up if the Central Link plan continues.

But as Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said of light rail, "We have to get started and stop the debate." 

Work has started, but the debate goes on.

Return to the Public Interest Transportation Forum home page.