Opinion

Economic realities of light rail in Federal Way | Andy Hobbs

Who’s more likely to take public transit into Seattle for work: The well-heeled professional from Bellevue with a Lexus and the cash for parking, or the working-class joe from Federal Way who lives paycheck to paycheck?

Whatever you think of the light rail, South King County needs it.

A Sound Transit spokesman delivered grim words about Federal Way’s exclusion from a proposed light rail link to Seattle. The Federal Way City Council and mayor scolded the spokesman as if he were Sound Transit’s sacrificial lamb. Sometimes you just need to shoot the messenger.

Light rail may not reach the northern edge of Federal Way until 2040. That would require another ballot measure — just like the ballot measure that, in hindsight, wasted everyone’s time and money when Sound Transit pushed for it back in 2008. The Federal Way City Council and local leaders also lobbied hard for the light rail. Were their efforts in vain? Apparently so.

South King County’s lack of tax revenue is the main reason for the snub. It is no secret that both the cost of living and homeownership rates are lower in South King County compared to more affluent areas like the Eastside. This presents a greater challenge to generate tax revenue, especially when residents of a particular taxation area have less to spend. This also explains why those cities across Lake Washington will see light rail long before Federal Way.

Regardless of traffic congestion on the Eastside (and the current legal/financial tango between Sound Transit and light rail foes), South King County residents will reap greater rewards from light rail.

A 2008 report from the National Association for State Community Services Programs examines the impact of public transportation on low-income households. The study notes that in 2000, transportation accounted for 36 cents out of every dollar spent in the poorest fifth of American households; 98 percent of that amount was spent on purchasing, operating and maintaining their cars.

Public transit enhances mobility and frees up transportation expenses, allowing these households to pay for other essential services — and ultimately raising their overall quality of life. With more money in their pockets, the households can shop more often at local businesses. It’s a win-win, leading to more independence for the people and less strain on the economy.

There is even concrete proof of demand for public transportation in South King County, which ranks among the top users of King County Metro bus service. More than 20 million bus boardings come from the area each year, according to a Metro spokesman.

The Sound Transit governing board will meet May 26 to consider options for bringing light rail past South 200th Street to include a stop at Highline Community College. That still leaves the Federal Way area and its 100,000-plus residents in the dark.

Light rail makes sense here, despite the economic realities — and shortsightedness — behind the decision to shaft Federal Way.

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