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Sound Transit toots its horn

The Mirror

With the opening of the downtown Federal Way Transit Center last month and reports that regional ridership was up 16 percent last year, Sound Transit chief executive officer Joni Earl seemed pleased about the past year in regional mass transit and what might be coming up in this one for south King County.

The new transit center opened Feb. 11 after several years of contentious wrangling between the agency and citizens and two years of construction.

Earl, briefing the Federal Way City Council recently, said “we had some pretty rough times between our jurisdictions” during the center’s planning. But she said she walked to the new roundabout on South 317th Street to take a look at the facility and was happy with what she saw.

“It really does fit architecturally into what the city was looking for,” she said. “The whole way it turned out is just beautiful. It turned out because of the way this council worked with the (Sound Transit) board.”

According to Sound Transit, more and more people are choosing to commute on its trains and buses rather than drive. That ridership was up 16 percent is remarkable since the only service increases were a couple train runs, Earl said.

“It’s all growth in existing service,” she said.

The opening of the new transit center could make it easier for Federal Way commuters to use transit. A new route, 577, will provide service to downtown Seattle, though in the beginning it will be limited to peak-hour, one-direction service to Seattle in the morning and Federal Way in the afternoon. Metro and Pierce Transit buses also will stop at the center.

Earl said Sound Transit is working on finding tenants for land on either side of the center. The board is working with King County Library System on the east parcel, she said, and the goal is to have a decision by June. Library officials have suggested it as a site to relocate the South 320th Library, a move that is meeting resistance from some of the public.

A formal request for proposals from developers for the west parcel is pending.

In the coming years, Central Link light-rail service could have the greatest impact on Federal Way, particularly if a track is running along Pacific Highway South, connecting a station at the Kent-Des Moines park-and-ride lot with the Federal Way Transit Center.

For cost-estimating purposes, Sound Transit officials assumed an elevated line would run down the west side of Pacific and cross the highway near South 317th Street to connect with the transit center, then continue around The Commons at Federal Way back to Pacific to the next stop in the southern part of the city.

Earl said nothing has been decided. But she encouraged the council to think about whether they want light rail in the city at all.

The project could be cut so limited transit dollars could be directed elsewhere, and Sound Transit needs to know the city’s feeling on the project soon, she said.

“At this stage, with 63 projects, we can’t afford them all,” she said. “We need to hear from jurisdictions to help make decisions.”

The Sound Transit Board hopes to take a list of projects to voters in November, which means a significant amount of technical work to help finalize the list and a tax plan by the end of this month.

Earl admitted March 31 is a “very aggressive” timeline, but she said the board wants to have time to review the list and get public input in time for the June 30 deadline to file for a November ballot measure.

Earl added the agency has been hearing from people that “things are moving awfully quickly, and (we) feel the same way.”

If a Central Link light-rail segment through Federal Way makes it onto the ballot and is approved, Sound Transit will begin a design process. Earl said it might be a year or two from the time the project is approved before it’d even be in the environmental impact statement phase, which means construction would be several years away.

Some council members have questioned an elevated light-rail line and expressed an interest in seeing street-level light rail. Earl said Sound Transit is “lots of work away” from deciding the line’s orientation, and the board hasn’t decided if light rail in Federal Way will even make the cut. It’s expensive to build in south King County because of the operational costs of existing bus and Sounder commuter train service, she said.

Because of the time crunch, Earl encouraged council members to just stick with answering whether “light rail in this area is something you want to see happen.”

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