News

Downtown access hits a money snag

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

Nobody argues that something has to be done about South 320th Street in downtown Federal Way. But whether to spend the money to study new interchanges from Interstate 5 into town continues to meet with hot debate in City Council chambers.

A plan to allocate $500,000 to study potential exit locations from I-5 into downtown narrowly passed the council last week, but dissenting council members want to more information before they’ll get behind the study.

Part of the this year’s Transportation Improvement Plan, which cities are required to file annually with the state, includes widening South 320th to seven lanes to accommodate the number of drivers expected to use the street over the next six years.

City officials said they don’t want South 320th to be seven lanes wide. That would run counter to the city’s vision of a pedestrian-friendly downtown area, they said, and on a seven-lane street, some pedestrians wouldn’t make it across before the light changed.

But if South 320th isn’t widened, the road is expected to fail in 10 years.

About five years ago, city officials began informally discussing the potential problems that could crop up when South 320th reaches capacity.

In 1998, now-Councilman Eric Faison brought the discussion to the forefront as a member of the city’s Planning Commission because so many people were complaining about traffic on South 320th, he said.

Faison asked what would happen when 320th hit capacity, city traffic engineer Rick Perez said, and officials responded, “‘Oh, funny you should ask.’”

Federal Way’s comprehensive plan already identified that South 312th Street would one day extend across Interstate 5 to provide access to the east side of the freeway. And South 312th was the only street among surrounding streets that went far enough into Federal Way that drivers might rather use it than South 320th.

Faison said it was a logical choice.

“It goes really deep into the city,” he said. “It’s the only one that would alleviate traffic in the city.”

By the time he was appointed to the council in 2001, officials were considering options for addressing traffic congestion on South 320th. Perez said suggestions included either building another way to get from I-5 into downtown or making South 320th an eight-lane street.

In 2001, the council adopted the 2002 Transportation Improvement Plan, which officially included a South 312th Street access study.

This year, the project rose to first on the TIP list — and became broader in scope to study several options, not just South 312th — “out of recognition that it’s such a long-term thing, we’d better get started on it now,” Perez said. “The capacity needs will be overdue by the time it’s finished.”

The whole process of studying potential sites for an interchange, doing environmental work and beginning construction could take another decade.

“Siting interchanges is not an easy process,” Perez said. “It generally takes 10 years to get the state Department of Transportation to approve interchange,s because they need Federal Highway Administration approval from D.C. We need to get started now.”

Paying for the study has never been without discussion. Even this year, it made it to the city’s TIP list by one vote, with dissenters on the council arguing the city hasn’t made enough of an effort to find other partners or funding sources that could offset the cost.

Councilwoman Linda Kochmar, who voted against funding the study, said she’s concerned about raising the city’s level of indebtedness with so many other big projects on the table — including $15.3 million to buy and renovate the Paragon building for a new city hall and more than $13 million for a community center.

“We have many capital improvement projects on our to-do list,” she said. “All I asked for was to delay the project one year, until I have a better idea of what costs are going to be.”

Faison argued city residents probably would prefer a new way to alleviate congestion downtown than a new city hall or community center.

“The issue of access to Federal Way has been a number one priority for residents for years,” he said during council deliberation last week. “If we get started now, it’ll be done in 15 years when 320th is at failure. If we’d started in 1998, we’d be so much farther ahead now.”

Kochmar and Councilman Dean McColgan said they want the city to explore other funding options or partnerships before they’ll support spending that much money on the study.

“My issue is not with doing the project,” McColgan said. “It’s have we exhausted all the ways to pay for the study? I think we could delay the project a year for that.”

“It’s a very expensive study for a project that I’m not clear on what they’re doing,” Kochmar said. “Our policy is to fund those projects for which we could find federal and state money in grants. The staff said there was a slim chance the study would get funding.”

City officials sent a list of priority transportation projects to legislators during the 2003 legislative session for which they hoped to get funding. On that list was the downtown access study, the Pacific Highway South project, high-occupancy vehicle lane construction on I-5 and the Triangle study, among other things. While the latter three received funding, the downtown access study did not.

City officials have said finding grant money to study access points into downtown doesn’t stand much of a chance.

“The county might be willing to pitch in because it’s unincorporated King County in the east and they participated on the Triangle study,” Perez said. “But there’s not really any other logical partner.”

The city currently is working with King County, Sound Transit, the city of Kent and the state DOT to improve the interchange at South 272nd Street, locatd in the county near the northern part of Federal Way.

Perez said between a quarter and a third of Federal Way residents use South 272nd to access I-5 “because they don’t want to fight their way to 320th.”

Still, city officials aren’t necessarily sure improving South 272nd would encourage drivers to use it instead of South 320th. “It’s not like adding capacity at South 272nd will shift demand away from 320th,” Perez said.

Mayor Jeanne Burbidge, who serves as the chairwoman of the South County Area Transportation Board, said grant funding generally requires projects be ready to go, with studies and often environmental work completed.

Also, because of the narrowness of scope — the project only would serve Federal Way, not alleviating congestion on the freeway or improving safety, two of the state’s priorities for grants — it probably would be unlikely to get state funding.

Not that the state or federal government will be giving out much in grants over the next year because of the tight economy. Lawmakers trimmed $1 billion off a State Route 405 project by eliminating the interchange portion of the improvement project.

The only reason the state is participating in the Triangle study, Perez said, is because there was a serious safety issue at the cloverleaf there.

“There was something like nine high-accident locations at the interchange,” Perez said.

The ramp from South 320th to southbound I-5 is also a high-accident area, but it’s not nearly as bad as the Triangle, he said.

Despite the cost, council members who opposed the $500,000 allocation said they’re still willing to proceed with other capital projects.

“I’m happy we’re moving forward with city hall and the community center,” Kochmar said. “I’m happy with the transportation projects. I’m not happy with $500,000 for a study.”

McColgan said it’s not a matter of access study versus the community center anyway.

“There’s more to it than that. The 1 percent utility tax was specifically for the community center and it would take some work to use it for something else,” he said. “I don’t think it can be either/or. The money is there to be used. We don’t have to cancel one project to fund another.”

Regardless whether officials think the city might be eligible for grant funding, McColgan said the city at least should check to see if any options are available.

“We need to exhaust all possibilities from the state for money for the study and eventually down the road for the project,” he said. “We want to make sure our legislators have a chance to review it, take a hack at state money.

“I need a better picture of what the study would provide and I would really need to know if the project was fully studied, what the chances are we’d get on anyone’s list. What I don’t want to happen is we spent $500,000 and have it sit for three or four or five years.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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