Sound Transit and the Port of Seattle announced yesterday they have agreed on a plan to extend light rail to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by December 2009. Sound Transit officials said...

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SEATAC — Sound Transit and the Port of Seattle announced yesterday they have agreed on a plan to extend light rail to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by December 2009.

Sound Transit officials said the agency can pay for the $225 million project without asking voters to raise taxes, mostly by liberalizing its financial policies so it can borrow more money.

The 1.7-mile light-rail extension isn’t a done deal. It’s part of a complex plan for reconfiguring access to the airport that hinges on adding another eastbound lane to Highway 518, the freeway that funnels most traffic from the airport to Interstate 5.

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There’s no money to build that lane now. And without it, light rail to the airport won’t happen.

But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of politicians who gathered at the airport for the announcement yesterday.

“We are 90 percent of the way there to making sure this is going to happen,” said Pierce County Executive and Sound Transit board chairman John Ladenburg.

“This may be the best Christmas present for the entire Puget Sound region.”

Extending light rail to the airport is among voters’ top regional transportation priorities, according to several polls conducted over the past year.

The airport was included in Sound Transit’s original plan for a 21-mile light-rail line from SeaTac to Seattle’s University District. When cost overruns and changes in airport plans forced the agency to scale back the project in 2001 to a 14-mile line from downtown Seattle to a park-and-ride lot in Tukwila, critics ridiculed it as a “train to nowhere.”

With yesterday’s announcement, “this light-rail line is a line to somewhere,” Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said.

The downtown-Tukwila segment is under construction now, with service set to begin in mid-2009. If the airport extension sticks to the schedule outlined in the Port-Sound Transit agreement, it would open just six months later.

During those six months, rail passengers would take shuttle buses from Tukwila to the airport.

The airport light-rail station would be built near the northeast corner of the parking garage, at the same elevation as the skybridges that now link the garage with the terminals. Passengers arriving by rail would walk about 1,000 feet on covered walkways across a skybridge and through the garage to reach the nearest ticket counters.

That’s about the same distance between Seattle’s King Street Station and the west entrance of Qwest Field, Sound Transit said.

“They won’t have to pay for parking,” said Metropolitan King County Councilwoman and Sound Transit board member Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac. “They won’t have to find a shuttle bus. They won’t have to wait.”

But transportation consultant James MacIsaac, a longtime Sound Transit critic, said 1,000 feet is a long way to walk with a full suitcase.

Another skybridge from the station would cross Highway 99, also known as International Boulevard, to a high-density “downtown” the city of SeaTac hopes will grow there with housing, offices, retail and entertainment.

Sound Transit estimates about 3,000 passengers would board trains at the airport daily in 2020. Trains would run every six to 10 minutes.

Tracks from the Tukwila station to the airport would be partly elevated, partly on the surface down the median of a relocated North Airport Expressway.

The airport station would displace “return to terminal” ramps at the north end of the garage. Motorists leaving the terminal and wishing to return instead would use new ramps that would be built on the North Airport Expressway near South 160th Street, just south of Highway 518.

The light-rail station won’t be built until after those ramps are built. And, because traffic sometimes backs up from eastbound 518 onto the northbound expressway past 160th, officials said the new ramps won’t be built until a third lane is added to 518 between the airport and I-5.

“Everything else is dependent on making that work,” said Port Commissioner Paige Miller.

She estimated the cost of the extra lane at $25 million, and she expressed hope the Legislature will provide the money. The Port, which expects to provide $60 million to $80 million for the access-road changes, also is willing to pay some of the 518 cost, she said.

Environmental studies on the 518 project aren’t scheduled to be finished until 2006. Spokeswoman Linda Mullen said there’s no money in the state Department of Transportation’s proposed 2005-2007 budget to build it.

She also said Miller’s cost estimate probably is low, and that the department should have an updated number by late next month.

Sound Transit’s assertion that it could come up with $225 million to build light rail to the airport without raising taxes came as a surprise. The financial plan the agency released last month said just $57 million in unused financial capacity was available.

But Tacoma City Councilman Kevin Phelps, Sound Transit’s finance chairman, said yesterday that another $100 million can be generated by loosening a longstanding Sound Transit financial policy that restricts how much debt the agency can take on.

Another Sound Transit financial policy assumes the agency will pay 5.85 percent interest on its debt. Reducing that assumption to about 5 percent would generate another $50 million to $60 million, Phelps said.

The rest of the money for the airport extension could come from small federal grants administered by the Puget Sound Regional Council or from reallocating some money now assigned to other Sound Transit projects in South King County, he added.

Changing the financial policies would require approval from the Sound Transit board. But Phelps and chief financial officer Hugh Simpson said the agency’s financial status would remain strong.

“Our [financial policies] are so conservative, compared to most,” Phelps said.

MacIsaac disagreed. “I am just not favoring all of this debt-thinking we’re getting into,” he said. “They’re taking all of the margins out. There’s no room for a mistake to occur.”

The $225 million estimate includes all capital costs and reserves, and it accounts for inflation, officials said, but doesn’t include financing costs.

Sound Transit, the Port and the city of SeaTac have been working on the plan announced yesterday for nearly two years. Originally, they assumed the extension couldn’t be built until 2011.

Now, Sound Transit board chairman Ladenburg said, light rail could link the airport and downtown in time for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com