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Can Federal Way and Sound Transit work together on light rail?
On the heels of a recent development in the region's light rail plans, questions have been raised over the nature of Federal Way's diplomacy and response to Sound Transit.
Federal Way leaders voiced outrage over the delay of voter-approved light rail, which still requires residents to pay their share — regardless of whether it reaches the city before 2040.
Last spring's announcement of light rail's fate spurred the city into action. Federal Way has pushed a number of bills in the Legislature aimed at overhauling and essentially dismantling Sound Transit. In addition to annual audits, the bills propose sweeping changes to the Sound Transit board structure and cities' participation in the agency's tax collection, which spans three counties. The city is also backing a state performance audit currently under way.
Both sides agree that South King County's tax revenue shortfall of more than $850 million is the project's biggest obstacle. However, Federal Way's approach to the issue has been viewed by some as adversarial rather than solution-oriented.
The proposed legislation in Olympia, for example, may have soured the relationship between the city, the transit agency and regional leaders.
On Feb. 6, King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer and State Sen. Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way) announced a proposed amendment to Sound Transit's 2012 budget to put $24 million toward making light rail shovel ready in Federal Way. The intention is to enhance Federal Way's eligibility for state or federal grants.
Eide did not support Federal Way's bills in the Legislature, preferring to await news from a state audit of Sound Transit. Despite Federal Way's public stance on finding a solution, city officials were unaware of the developments related to the shovel-ready amendment until the day of the press conference. In addition, von Reichbauer issued a call to action for Federal Way in joining the conversation for solutions: "They can come and respond to this great opportunity that we have before us… and if they do, I think we can start using stones to build bridges, not throwing stones."
An internal Sound Transit memo was accidentally distributed to reporters at a Feb. 6 press conference. In one part, the memo criticizes Federal Way Mayor Skip Priest for promoting bills that would make it more difficult to extend light rail service.
"If Mayor Priest keeps this up, getting light rail to Federal Way will only happen despite of him rather than because of him," according to the memo, which says Federal Way has a "hostile and unproductive stance toward Sound Transit."
In defense of Federal Way, spokesman Chris Carrel says the city has been a "leading force in articulating issues of transparency."
"Sound Transit made clear it was abandoning Federal Way when it comes to the light rail link … and not interested in addressing issues with bus service," Carrel said.
In an email to The Mirror, Carrel said the "shovel ready" proposal for light rail, announced Feb. 6 after supposedly months in the making, is similar to an idea suggested by Priest. The suggestion is made "to redirect ST3 planning funds toward the South Link," Carrel wrote. "All of these things demonstrate the positive role and impact the City of Federal Way is playing."
However, the proposal for a $24 million amendment to the 2012 budget, if approved, would use ST2 funds this year, according to Sound Transit. It does not redirect planning funds for ST3 (Sound Transit 3), the agency reports.
Light rail letters
Federal Way Mayor Skip Priest and Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl have exchanged multiple letters related to light rail and bus service.
In lengthy letters, Priest often refers to Federal Way's working-class residents, many of whom depend on public transportation. The correspondence has continued since last spring, when Sound Transit announced it lacked the tax dollars to bring voter-approved light rail to South King County.
"These citizens are struggling to get a seat on a Sound Transit bus to or from Seattle. At the same time, Sound Transit is taking $13.5 million a year from their community," Priest wrote in a Dec. 6 letter. The dollar amount refers to Federal Way's contribution to the agency. Sound Transit says it invests about $12 million annually in transit services and operations in Federal Way.
"Without equity of commitment to all service areas, regional light rail is in danger of becoming trains for wealthier communities," Priest wrote, "while the poor and working class get the shaft."
The city's letters to Sound Transit include suggestions for improvement sandwiched between complaints about current services and policies. Sound Transit responds with letters that explain, cite and defend the agency's policies, legal dilemmas and finances.
In response to light rail's delay, the city has requested an exhaustive list of public records from Sound Transit. Among the information sought:
• All documents addressing East Link funding in the Bellevue area.
• All documents regarding subarea equity and loans, as it applies to funding the light rail extension to South 272nd Street. "Subarea" refers to the local taxing districts from which Sound Transit collects.
• All documents and email that deal with staff salaries and compensation structure, from 2007 to the present. Other requests include all information on trips and conferences by Sound Transit board members since 2007, any recommendations for cuts to administration costs, and more.
Nearly 80 percent of Sound Transit’s revenues come from sales tax revenues collected from five subareas. The total shortfall for the five subareas is about $3.9 billion. The South King County subarea’s projected sales tax revenues are down 31 percent, which is about $850 million.
Sound Transit has attempted to engage the public on the overall issue. In recent weeks, Earl has been a guest speaker at local clubs including Federal Way Kiwanis and Rotary to explain Sound Transit's perspective on transportation challenges.