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

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SEATAC — Sound Transit and the Port of Seattle today announced 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 east to Interstate 5.

There’s no money to build that lane now.

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

“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.”

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 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 called ridiculed it as a “train to nowhere.”

With today’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.

“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.”

Another skybridge across Highway 99, also known as International Boulevard, would connect the station with a proposed SeaTac city center. Sound Transit estimates about 3,000 passengers would board trains at the airport daily in 2020.

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.

Existing “Return to Terminal” ramps at the north end of the garage would be torn down to make way for the airport station. Motorists leaving the terminal and wishing to return would use new ramps that would be built on the North Airport Expressway at South 160th Street, just south of Highway 518.

According to the agreement, the port and Sound Transit signed this week, the light rail station won’t be built until those ramps are built. And, because traffic sometimes backs up from eastbound 518 onto the northbound Expressway past 160th, officials said the 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 expressed hope the Legislature will provide the money. The port, which expects to provide $60 to $80 million for the access road changes, also is willing to pay some of the 518 cost, she said.

Sound Transit’s most recent financial plan says the agency has just $57 million in unused financial capacity available for the airport light-rail extension. But Tacoma City Councilman Kevin Phelps, Sound Transit’s finance chairman, said another $100 million can be generated by changing a longstanding Sound Transit financial policy that limits 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 an interest rate of about 5 percent would generate another $50 to $60 million, Phelps said.

Both changes would require the approval of the Sound Transit board, he added. Even with the changes, the agency’s financial status would remain strong, Phelps and chief financial officer Hugh Simpson said.

“Our (financial policies) are so conservative, compared to most,” 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.

The airport light rail project’s $225 million price tag includes all capital costs and reserves and factors in 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 today for nearly two years. Originally, they assumed the extension couldn’t be built until 2011.

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

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or