A reluctant, almost apologetic Sound Transit board yesterday dropped First Hill from its plans for a light-rail line between downtown and...

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A reluctant, almost apologetic Sound Transit board yesterday dropped First Hill from its plans for a light-rail line between downtown and the University of Washington.

The vote was 12-1, with Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver dissenting.

“This is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t vote,” said Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac.

A deep-underground station in the dense, job-rich, pro-transit Seattle neighborhood had been part of Sound Transit’s plans for nine years. Only in recent weeks did agency staff members raise serious questions about its construction risks, citing a recently completed analysis and the agency’s experience excavating a similar station under Beacon Hill.

Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl recommended Tuesday that the First Hill station be scrapped. “I understand nobody wants us to drop First Hill,” she told the board yesterday. “I don’t either.”

Officially, the board won’t make a final decision until at least December, after an environmental review is completed. But judging from most board members’ comments, there was nothing tentative about yesterday’s vote.

“We made a 100-year decision here today,” said Metropolitan King County Councilman Larry Phillips, D-Seattle.

The decision could have political implications. Brian Parker, representing the board of a First Hill condominium, said he would vote and work against future Sound Transit ballot measures. State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, whose district includes First Hill, said the neighborhood’s past support for Sound Transit “will turn into opposition, even for my tax-loving constituents.”

After the vote, King County Executive Ron Sims and McIver proposed that the agency take one more look at whether the First Hill station could be built using different methods or in a different location to reduce risks.

That motion was tabled until Aug. 11.

Sound Transit planners estimated eliminating the First Hill station would drop the cost of the downtown-university line from $1.85 billion to $1.5 billion. But Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said that “even if we had enough money, the construction-related risks of the First Hill station would put the entire project at risk.”

What’s more, he added, retaining First Hill could cost $1 billion because it would threaten $650 million in federal grants the agency is counting on to build the line.

The Bush administration has recently tightened cost-effectiveness requirements for projects seeking federal money. Sound Transit says that, with a First Hill station, the project wouldn’t qualify.

Board and staff members vowed to look at other ways to improve transit service to First Hill, including exclusive bus lanes and priority for buses at traffic signals. Phillips offered a new idea: a rail shuttle in a short, shallow tunnel between First Hill and the proposed Capitol Hill light-rail station.

McIver argued the board was making its decision too hastily. First Hill, a major employment center, was being “irrevocably ripped from the system with a two-day notice,” he said.

But Metropolitan King County Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, who is running against McIver for City Council, called the vote “an act of leadership. … We are making a decision today to move light rail forward.”

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