Sound Transit favors building light rail mostly along to I-5 from SeaTac to Federal Way, but keeps its options to reach Highline College.

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The light-rail line from SeaTac to Federal Way should be built mostly along Interstate 5, instead of over Highway 99, the Sound Transit board decided Thursday.

The unanimous vote gives the I-5 alignment preferred status in the final environmental-impact studies before a final board vote in late 2016. That’s roughly when the public is expected to consider a hefty tax increase to fund more than $15 billion in regional transit extensions, including most of the Federal Way line.

A $1.4 billion freeway route is supposed to save $300 million in construction and land costs. It’s also backed by all four suburban cities in its path, SeaTac, Des Moines, Kent and Federal Way, whose leaders are loathe to inflict a construction mess on Highway 99, or hurt small businesses through property takings.

But an I-5 route annoys pro-transit urbanist groups, such as the Transportation Choices Coalition and Futurewise, who said the agency would miss its best chance to promote “transit-oriented development,” on both sides of the 99 strip.

A perhaps greater issue is serving Highline College, with 17,000 students and staff, a prime transit market — but off the freeway path.

“While everybody’s interested in making this more of an impetus for economic development, it also is crucial to actually serve people who are going to ride it,” college President Jack Bermingham told the board. A campus station would serve a diverse, mainly lower-income population, he said.

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Click upper right to enlarge

Student body president Pa Ousman Jobe testified: “We definitely would like to have Sound Transit, on rail, come to campus to ease our transportation. I think all of you have been students at some point and understand the stress of being a student and trying to get to classes on time, physically, mentally and emotionally.”

Chances are he’ll graduate before 2023, when Sound Transit says it can extend Link rail that far south from SeaTac.

The board’s current thinking is to head east from Angle Lake Station, in SeaTac, along the state’s proposed Highway 509 extension, turn south at I-5, then bend again back toward Highway 99 — hitting a station just east of Highway 99, or one-third of a mile from mid-campus, then return to I-5. For students, Sound Transit might build a pedestrian bridge or other fancy highway crossings.

But an amendment by Dave Upthegrove, a Metropolitan King County Council member from SeaTac, keeps alive for study a west-of-99 station, next to the college, adding maybe $50 million in trackway cost.

Sound Transit doesn’t expect to build farther south to the Star Lake Park and Ride and Federal Way Transit Center, unless voters provide money in next year’s multibillion dollar Sound Transit 3 measure.

City officials testified they can plan transit-oriented development around the freeway stops.

A $300 million savings could fund more transit service in South King County, said Ben Wolters, economic and community-development director for Kent. On the other side of town, he said, that might mean more Sounder trains and park-and-ride garages.