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Sound Transit seeks best light rail route through Kent

Sound Transit will expand light rail to Kent by 2023. - COURTESY GRAPHIC, Sound Transit
Sound Transit will expand light rail to Kent by 2023.
— image credit: COURTESY GRAPHIC, Sound Transit

Sound Transit officials are trying to figure out in the next few years where to build light rail tracks when they extend the line along Kent's West Hill by 2023.

After numerous studies and public input, Sound Transit has narrowed the options to five potential routes, mainly along Pacific Highway South or Interstate 5, as it aims for a decision on a preferred route by 2015 with a final selection in 2016.

Light rail is funded to be built from South 200th Street in SeaTac to Kent/Des Moines near Highline Community College, just north of South 240th Street.

But transit officials are designing a route to South 272nd Street in Federal Way, including $8 million in the 2013 budget for project development. Officials want the route designed to Federal Way in case money becomes available to build the line that far.

Cathal Ridge, South Corridor development manager of Sound Transit, presented an update about the project July 2 to the Kent City Council at a workshop.

"By late 2016 the board will select a project (route) to build," Ridge said to the council.

Here are the options:

• Interstate 5 westside

This route along the west side of I-5 could cause problems because the state Department of Transportation (DOT) has limited right-of-way north of 240th Street. The DOT also may want to use the right-of-way to add toll lanes, Ridge said.

• I-5 mix

Part of the route along the west side of the freeway and part of it down the freeway median. Sound Transit is uncertain if the median is available if DOT wants to expand freeway lanes.

• State Route 99 (Pacific Highway)

Tracks could be elevated and go down the median of SR 99, also known as Pacific Highway South. This would cause minimal impact to existing vehicle lanes and businesses but would be an issue at crossing intersections and where the highway doesn't have a median.

• 30th Avenue South

Elevated along the west side of the street that runs east of Pacific Highway South. Could be difficult to transition the track from Pacific Highway to  30th Avenue.

• State Route 99 (Pacific Highway) hybrid

Track would run along west side of street in some areas; down the median in some areas and along the east side in other areas. Track would be elevated in most areas, at-grade in others.

"I've been tracking this for a couple of years and the hybrid (option) looks like the more elegant solution I've seen," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Albertson in response to the proposals listed by Ridge.

"We looked at all of the configurations and screened out a lot," Ridge said. "It was not good to go all on the east side or all on the west side. It (the hybrid) is kind of the best of all worlds. But this is out there for consideration, it's not how it has to be. There may be questions about why it's on the east side or the west side (at certain spots)."

Sound Transit also needs to determine where to put stations and how many stations to have. Right now the primary stations are expected to be at Kent/Des Moines near Highline Community College and at South 272nd Street (either along I-5 or SR 99).

Light rail currently runs from Sea-Tac Airport to downtown Seattle. Sound Transit has started construction on a new 1.6-mile line from the airport south to South 200th Street in SeaTac that is expected to open in 2016. That route will run on an elevated guideway primarily along 28th Avenue South and is budgeted for $72 million this year.

Sound Transit gets the majority of its funding through sales taxes, vehicle licensing fees, federal grants and fare box revenue.

Voters initially approved funding light rail in 1996 and approved a sales tax increase in 2008 to fund expansion projects through 2023 to Southwest King County, Overlake and Lynnwood.

Ridge said once a route is picked, it will take until 2014 to compile a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and until 2016 to get a final EIS. Design of the project takes another two to three years. Construction takes three to four years, with a projected start of construction in 2019. That pushes the project completion date to 2023.

Councilman Bill Boyce asked Ridge if Sound Transit had heard any strong opposition to the project.

"No, not yet," Ridge said. "I don't know if that's good or bad. Maybe people don't know about the project. But we sent mailings to everyone in or near the corridors."

For more information and to comment about Sound Transit's light rail plans, go to www.soundtransit.org/Projects-and-Plans/Federal-Way-Transit-Extension.

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