City Hall takes on Sound Transit | Bob Roegner

City Hall’s ongoing dispute with Sound Transit over delay of the light rail extension to Federal Way has recently become both more public and more unpleasant as hardball tactics have come into play. But two of the city’s initiatives may have resulted in one canceling out the other.

By way of background, the downturn in the economy caused Sound Transit to announce over a year ago that light rail likely would have difficulty reaching Federal Way by 2023 as planned. Representatives from Sound Transit provided further information to Mayor Skip Priest and the Federal Way City Council during a council meeting last May. Projections and discussions suggested a more likely date of 2040. To city leaders, having its residents continue to pay a tax for several more years while not receiving any benefit was unacceptable.

Their reaction was swift and adversarial. The mayor and his staff, with the support of the city council, identified political, legal and administrative actions they were going to take. They proceeded to hire lobbyists and outside legal counsel to pursue their interests.

Recently, the State Auditor announced that he would audit Sound Transit and identified many of the same questions that the city has been raising. The city is supporting the audit. While Sound Transit has been audited before, Federal Way’s involvement lent a political overtone to the issue.

Also, behind the scenes in Olympia, city representatives had requested legislation from Sen. Tracey Eide (D) and Rep. Katrina Asay (R) to abolish the Sound Transit board and replace it with a five-person directly-elected countywide board. Some legislative observers were surprised at the city’s request and noted that if such legislation were to pass, it could actually diminish the city’s influence in at least two ways.

First, with five elected members, only one would likely represent the South King County area, while the city can currently call upon at least three members with some interest in Federal Way. Additionally, the person elected would represent a much larger area than Federal Way and would have to balance competing interests of perhaps 300,000 people, of which Federal Way would represent only 90,000.

Secondly, the elected representative would potentially need the financial support that special interest groups provide to get elected, again dividing the new board member’s loyalty in a way that diminishes Federal Way’s influence.

Just a few days ago, Eide and Asay sent Sound Transit and Mayor Priest a letter declining to pursue the legislation, during this legislative session, that would have abolished the board in deference to the state audit.

This effectively utilized one city initiative to cancel the other. The audit will still proceed, but the legislation is on hold until after the audit is complete, which will not be prior to the end of this year’s session. By next session, the dynamics with Sound Transit will likely be completely different.

Some regional leaders, in observing Federal Way’s support for the audit and the attempt to abolish Sound Transit’s governing board, have started to question the city strategy as being counterproductive to Federal Way’s long-term interests. Even some of the Federal Way City Council members are starting to question the strategy, although so far only in private.

The two initiatives are considered politically dangerous “hand grenades” that might have collateral damage to the interests of others who might otherwise have been willing to help Federal Way.

There is also a growing concern regionally and locally that Federal Way’s “attack” style, which may gain city leaders some hometown short-term political support, may at the same time be isolating the city in such a way as to undercut any maneuvering room they may have previously had available.

Mayor Priest and the city council didn’t really have much choice in the beginning. They needed to demonstrate to their constituents they were looking out for the community’s interests. That’s part of their job. And most knowledgeable leaders do feel that a solution to Federal Way’s problem needs to be found. But, it’s the recent city strategy that has been called into question.

Sound Transit continues to say “we recognize the problem in Federal Way and are working to try and find a solution.” Sound Transit’s executive director, Joni Earl, has been meeting with key leaders working on the problem. Sen. Eide and Rep. Asay’s bipartisan letter, while putting off the legislation, also makes clear their interest in a constructive solution that benefits Federal Way taxpayers and the region’s transportation needs. Pierce County leaders want a solution because they are linked to Federal Way.

And there is a solution available, but it requires cooperation and leadership.

The issue started with the lack of money. That is probably where seasoned thinkers might want to start looking for an answer.

We will update this issue again in the near future.


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