Opinion

Political dynamics behind light rail | Bob Roegner

Recently, Mayor Skip Priest and the Federal Way City Council unveiled their plan to challenge Sound Transit’s decision to put off light rail service to Federal Way from 2023 to 2040.

Sound Transit says that due to the economy, there isn’t enough money to maintain the original schedule. Federal Way residents have already contributed $12 million to their sub-region fund, and city officials estimate $240 million will have been contributed by the time construction is complete.

According to their plan, city leaders are hiring the Tukwila law firm of Talmadge and Fitzpatrick. They have also hired lobbyists Martin J. “Jamie” Durkin and Aaron Flygare to assist with local and state strategy.

Durkin is well known and primarily works with county issues. He already knows many of the Sound Transit board members through other efforts. Flygare has primarily worked with Olympia issues.

The reason for hiring the Tukwila law firm is likely two-fold. First, Phil Talmadge is a former state legislator from Seattle and a former judge. He is well connected and knows the law. Secondly, Sound Transit has followed the old Metro model and already has legal relationships with most of the big Seattle law firms. It would be a conflict of interest for them to also represent Federal Way.

At least part of the legal approach will be to obtain documents from Sound Transit under public disclosure laws in hopes of finding one that demonstrates that Sound Transit “knew” there wasn’t enough money when they went to the public with the vote.

If they can’t prove an “intent to mislead,” the city attorney has already informed the mayor and council that case law over simply not having enough money is on Sound Transit’s side. Absent a “smoking gun,” winning the legal argument won’t be easy. But strategically, it keeps the pressure on.

At the same time, if Durkin and Flygare can effectively lobby the Sound Transit board and staff, along with key Olympia officials, then Federal Way might be able to create just enough of a political opening for a closer look at the sub-region funding, state or federal money, or loans between regions.

There are no easy answers. The Sound Transit board is not going to simply give Federal Way money from another region’s taxpayers. If that were going to happen, it would have occurred when the mayor and the Sound Transit executive director met. Since there were no announcements, the meeting likely resulted in each restating their positions. The city has already requested that Sound Transit also consider other alternatives to provide Federal Way transit service on an earlier schedule.

As the issue has made the rounds of the local coffee shops, additional questions have been raised in the community since Federal Way’s strategy was unveiled. Was the city caught by surprise? And how much is the city spending in these tight budget times for legal advice and lobbyists? And will the costs vs. reward be worth it?

It’s hard to get a clear picture of how the communication between the city and Sound Transit occurred. No one wants to point fingers. But it does appear that there was a level of surprise. The city is planning to spend up to $30,000 from the city attorney’s professional services budget. City representatives say no other city business or projects will be delayed by this expenditure.

Despite those questions, politically speaking, the mayor and council don’t have much choice. And given the stakes, the money is not significant — at least not at this point.

The community feels indignant about the manner in which it has been treated by Sound Transit and rightfully expects city leaders to do something about it. At the same time, the public may not fully appreciate the challenge the city faces.

A city “win” may have to be measured, not by getting back what has been lost, but by how much they move the date closer from light rail’s current 2040 completion.

But a bigger strategy should also be in play here. Priest is a new mayor and needs to establish himself as a regional player if he is to represent Federal Way’s interests on future issues. Handled carefully, this situation could help send that message.

This is an important issue to Federal Way’s long-term needs and one that will continue to have many twists and turns. It will be interesting to watch the political dynamics unfold.

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