A panel of outside experts yesterday delivered a generally favorable review of Sound Transit's preliminary cost estimates and other early...

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A panel of outside experts yesterday delivered a generally favorable review of Sound Transit’s preliminary cost estimates and other early planning work for a second round of regional rail and bus projects that could be on the ballot next year.

While more engineering is needed for more-accurate cost estimates, panel chairman Michael Meyer wrote, the contingencies Sound Transit has factored into its calculations are “appropriate for the planning stage.”

A similar panel in 1996 pronounced Sound Transit’s cost estimates for the projects it now is building “reasonable and prudent.” That assessment proved far off the mark for many projects, especially the agency’s Seattle light-rail line, which had to be scaled back after it came in $1 billion over budget.

Meyer, a Georgia Tech engineering professor who also served on the 1996 panel, said Sound Transit has more experience and is doing things differently this time. “They have a little bit more information to go on now,” he said.

But, in light of the mistaken conclusion of nine years ago, Meyer said, “I’m certainly more sensitive to the cost side of things this time.”

Sound Transit’s board is considering submitting another package of projects and taxes to King, Snohomish and Pierce County voters, perhaps in fall 2006. The board is scheduled to adopt a new long-range plan next month that will form the foundation for that package.

State law requires that an independent “Expert Review Panel” examine Sound Transit’s technical work and ridership and cost estimates before any tax package goes on the ballot. Meyer’s letter yesterday contained the panel’s preliminary findings.

In general, it concluded, Sound Transit’s studies “provide the board, and the broader community, with a good foundation for considering transit options in the three-county region.”

Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl said she was pleased with the report.

The biggest debate so far is whether to build light rail or “bus rapid transit” — bus service with many of the features of rail — across Lake Washington on Interstate 90. Some bus rapid transit (BRT) advocates have accused Sound Transit of a bias toward rail.

The panel’s letter says both should remain under consideration. Meyer said he detected no bias toward rail in Sound Transit’s work.

But the panel did suggest that the agency consider future total transit ridership across both Lake Washington bridges in making its decision. Sound Transit’s studies show rail, while more expensive, would carry more riders across I-90 than buses. The agency also has acknowledged that total transit ridership across both bridges would be about the same with either buses or rail on I-90.

“The Expert Review Panel letter essentially confirms what we local critics have been saying: namely, that Sound Transit has been presenting biased and incomplete cost and ridership information in order to manipulate voter opinion,” Richard Harkness of the anti-rail Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives said in an e-mail.

“The [panel] is of course much more diplomatic in the way they word it.”

Meyer said he has more confidence in Sound Transit’s cost estimates now because the agency has experience building projects, and because it has added another level of contingencies it didn’t include in 1996.

Many of the problems that drove up the Seattle light-rail line’s costs, such as unsuitable soils along the route of a tunnel between downtown Seattle and the University District, couldn’t have been anticipated nine years ago, he added.

Sound Transit’s cost estimates have improved, Earl said: “We’ve got a new and much more robust methodology that we brought in in 2001, and it’s stood up.”

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