The U.S. Dept. of Transportation has released $49.5 million in design funding it froze last year for Seattle's planned Central Link light rail line after DOT's inspector general raised questions about the project's costs and financing.

DOT Secretary Norman Mineta, who announed the release of the design funds on Aug. 21, put a hold on the money for Seattle in April 2001, not long after he became head of the department.

Ron Sims, chairman of Seattle's Sound Transit authority, said, "This is a crystal-clear signal from the federal government that Sound Transit is on track for building Central Link light rail."

Sound Transit had planned a 23.5-mile line that DOT's IG said last year would cost $4.2 billion, up from a $2.5-billion estimate just seven months before. Click here to view map

Last November, the authority's board approved a new plan calling for a 14-mile minimum operating segment, whose capital cost is estimated at $2.07 billion. It would run from downtown Seattle to a point just outside the boundary of Seattle Tacoma International Airport. The light rail vehicles would share the existing downtown Seattle transit tunnel with buses. The line then would be at grade through South Seattle, except for a tunnel under Beacon Hill, and become elevated near the southern end.

In July, Sound Transit submitted a draft application to DOT for a $500-million federal grant, which would cover about 25% of the initial segment's capital cost. So far, the agency has spent $41 million of the $500 million, says Sound Transit spokesman Lee Somerstein.

Besides the Federal Transit Administration's review of the application, Sound Transit's plan will face another DOT IG study. Congress would have to appropriate the funding as well.