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Transit center faces tough road

Local business owners and residents are citing fears of worsened traffic congestion in their opposition of a 1,200-stall parking structure and transit center proposed for downtown Federal Way.

The state Department of Transportation and Sound Transit earlier this month released a finding of no significant impact for the project, but Gateway Center president Dan Casey and other business owners have filed an appeal asking the state agencies to reconsider.

A hearing has been scheduled for mid-June and a decision is expected in July.

The seven-acre, five-story parking structure and transit center and associated direct access ramps to high-occupancy vehicle lanes on Interstate 5 are expected to cost about $51 million.

Planners expect construction to begin at the intersection of South 316th Street and 23rd Avenue Southwest in 2003 and end in 2005.

Business owners and residents said at a City Council meeting last week that while a transit center might be a good idea for boosting business downtown and helping the city realize its vision, the associated parking garage will only add to congestion.

There’s a difference between how transit centers work and how park-and-ride lots work, Casey said: A downtown transit center would serve people who have ridden a bus into the city’s downtown area to shop, eat at restaurants or run errands. A downtown park-and-ride, on the other hand, would draw commuters who probably would drive into downtown to park at the lot and then catch a bus to take them out of the city. They probably wouldn’t shop or eat in the city on their way to or from the lot.

“A park-and-ride is anathema to the mission,” Casey said. “To put a park-and-ride in the middle of downtown with all those cars, as well as those buses–– it just gums up downtown and undermines the vision for the city center.”

Several people suggested expanding one of the existing park-and-ride lots to serve commuters without bringing them into downtown. That way, a downtown transit center still could serve the city’s vision.

Casey suggested moving the high-occupancy vehicle lanes to the park-and-ride, too. Planners might have to use 40 or 50 stalls there, he said, but it would be a small price to pay to keep buses and carpoolers off South 320th Street.

Vicki Youngs, Sound Transit’s project manager, said planners did consider that option and decided against it.

In 1996, officials identified several transit projects in Federal Way, including a park-and-ride, a transit center and direct access to I-5. Planning teams at that time decided it made the most sense to put all three in one facility.

By 1999, planners had honed criteria, including pedestrian use, the prospect for later transit development and proximity to a geographic core, to reduce 10 potential sites to the one downtown.

Youngs said environmental concerns fed into their decision not to expand at the South 324th Street park-and-ride lot, but the idea also was rejected because of concerns with where commuters would park during construction.

Future potential expansion would be difficult because of the BPA lines. And the planning teams early on identified proximity to a geographic center as a key criteria for the project.

But Casey said the city identified a vision for downtown that included pedestrian access, connectivity between Steel Lake and Celebration parks, and a vibrancy that would encourage business and residents to live in the city.

“It’s part of our vision, and we’re going to load in all these park-and-riders? It’s a loss of vision,” Casey said.

While many stated concerns about adding to traffic congestion on South 320th, Youngs said Sound Transit has done a thorough analysis of the traffic impact.

“Overall, the project would not violate any of the city’s standards related to levels of service on any one road,” she said.

In 2005, when the structure would open, about 550 drivers are expected to use the parking structure during peak morning and afternoon hours.

By 2020, officials predict, between 700 and 800 people would be driving to the lot during peak hours.

The potential influx of cars concerns some people who live near the proposed transit center.

Rosemarie Labus, who lives at the Meridian Court Apartments, told the council it’s already hard to cross the street because of traffic.

“A 1,200-car lot will make traffic worse,” she said. “This seems like a recipe for disaster.”

Councilwoman Mary Gates, who also is on Sound Transit’s board of directors, said transit centers usually are located in areas that are dense enough to make them work, like downtown Federal Way.

Stacy Keen, a Gateway Center merchant, said the structure would contribute to already difficult traffic.

“We look out our business and it’s just a steady stream,” she said. “They come in so very upset.”

Dave Keen, her husband, encouraged city officials to think carefully and maybe choose another option.

“If this is the vision of our downtown core, a parking lot, I’d hope the vision would be different than that,” he said.

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