The nation's top transportation official said Monday that she'll recommend Congress give Sound Transit $750 million to help pay for a light-rail...

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The nation’s top transportation official said Monday that she’ll recommend Congress give Sound Transit $750 million to help pay for a light-rail tunnel from Westlake Center to Husky Stadium.

“This federal commitment will help give the region’s commuters a choice in travel that is fast and frequent, and it will help get them where they need to go without worrying about being stuck in traffic,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said. “It is a great example of what we can do together to reduce congestion.”

The grant would cover less than half the $1.7 billion price for the three-mile tunnel; construction would begin in late 2008 or early 2009. Only two stations would be added, one atop Capitol Hill and one at the stadium, to open in 2016.

Peters made her announcement inside the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, which is being resurfaced to take the city’s first modern light-rail trains, three years from now. After the news conference, she said that despite the expense of tunneling here, there would be plenty of riders in the state’s most densely populated corridor. Federal figures predict 40,200 people would board trains per weekday at the two stops, 17,400 of them new to public transit, by 2030. Peters said tunneling preserves cultural and retail buildings, while a cheaper layout on the surface might not.

Her decision was no surprise — a year ago, the Federal Transit Administration gave the “University Link” line its highest possible rating among national projects competing for money.

Still, the announcement is meaningful because it allows Sound Transit to spend $39 million to fully design the corridor in the next two years.

The line can be constructed without a public vote because the agency can build a tunnel that would reach the stadium by prolonging its existing sales tax, combined with federal dollars. But extensions to Northgate and Lynnwood, to the Eastside and to Federal Way would require a multi-billion-dollar tax increase, which will be on the November 2007 ballot.

Three years ago, a similar $500 million grant squeaked through Congress for Sound Transit’s “initial segment” from downtown to Tukwila. A key House member, Ernest Istook, R-Okla., resisted the project. Two Washington state Republicans, Jennifer Dunn and George Nethercutt, criticized it before Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and other supporters lobbied to allow the grant.

There should be less drama this time. Dunn’s successor, Rep. Dave Reichert, supports University Link, a spokeswoman said. Sound Transit’s leading advocate, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is poised to chair a Senate subcommittee in charge of transportation spending.

Voters in 1996 approved a regional transit plan featuring 21 miles of light rail, from just south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to the University District, for $1.7 billion. But elected officials and an expert panel had grossly underestimated the challenge, especially for digging through Seattle’s soggy glacial till. Estimates have soared to roughly $6 billion from the city of SeaTac to Northgate — and that’s without a stop at First Hill, dropped because of the costs and difficulty of mining a deep underground station.

Light rail is expected to reduce traffic congestion less than 2 percent. Peters replied people will be glad to get a transit option. “The road system, already congested, can only take so much,” she said. “Even a 1 or 2 percent diversion from traffic can make a great difference.”

Richard Harkness, a member of the opposition group Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives, said the University Link corridor is relatively good for rail ridership and there won’t be much of a fight against it because of Murray’s likely clout.

“I think she’s going to bring back the pork. It’s that simple,” he said.

However, he said he still believes the regional light-rail project is a huge mistake because bus rapid-transit could reach more people and save billions of dollars. The group is shifting its attention to the 2007 campaign.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com