Opinion

Light rail: Political lesson for Federal Way? | Bob Roegner

King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer and State Sen. Tracey Eide demonstrated once again why they are two of the most successful and skilled political problem solvers in the region, as they found a solution to the Sound Transit-Federal Way light rail connection dilemma.

The two South King County leaders have brokered an agreement that will not only put the Federal Way connection back on track, but extend it to South 320th Street. von Reichbauer, who is a member of the Sound Transit Board, was scheduled to make the formal proposal to the board Thursday.

Eide and von Reichbauer were joined at Monday’s press conference by King County Executive Dow Constantine and Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, and King County Councilman Joe McDermott.  It is unlikely the press conference would have been held unless the proposal’s passage were secure. McCarthy’s support is critical. She is not only the Sound Transit chair, but she needs the Federal Way connection to ensure the route goes on to Tacoma and Pierce County.

The proposal would allocate an additional $24 million toward engineering and environmental studies to ensure the Federal Way connection is shovel ready and able to compete for future grants. Not a perfect solution, but still a significant success.

Approximately a year ago, Sound Transit announced that due to the economic downturn, there simply wasn’t enough money to maintain the 2023 connection date to Federal Way. The projected date was moved to 2040. Federal Way city leaders were outraged.

While some in the region cautioned the city to seek a positive political solution, the city seemed to reject that notion.

Instead, Mayor Skip Priest and the city council reacted aggressively as they were frustrated with Sound Transit — and felt Sound Transit wasn’t listening to their concerns. Federal Way citizens would continue to be taxed without getting the promised service, and there was also community pressure on city leadership to try and reverse the decision.

The mayor, with council support, hired two lobbyists to work regionally and in Olympia to pass legislation to dismantle Sound Transit. The city also hired Phil Talmadge, an influential former judge and state legislator, to review legal options in anticipation of a lawsuit. The city filed several requests for public documents in an attempt to prove Sound Transit had acted in a disingenuous manner to mislead the voters in the 2008 transit election. They also seemed to personalize the issue by questioning Sound Transit’s staff salaries.

Recently, they raised the ante by supporting an audit of Sound Transit’s financial records by the state auditor.

Several regional leaders commented privately that they felt the mayor and council had gone far beyond their role of defending their citizens and were risking alienating some of the people they would need now — and in the future.

While the city’s attacks on Sound Transit initially garnered hometown political support, some community leaders had recently begun to question the long-term viability of Federal Way’s strategy. In fact, many regional leaders felt the audit request and legislation to dismantle Sound Transit was almost the tipping point and could have undermined von Reichbauer and Eide’s efforts to fashion an agreement, as it came at a delicate point in the discussions. Some were concerned that the city was going down a path of isolation that could jeopardize a solution, and if one were found, it might be “in spite of City Hall,” rather than because of it.

Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl had never stopped working to find a solution that helped Federal Way, but didn’t jeopardize other cities’ projects.

But more political muscle was needed.

That was provided by Eide and von Reichbauer, who had been using their diplomatic channels for several months to try and fashion a solution.

They were continually confronted with both financial and political hurdles.

Neither of the political leaders would comment, but several sources confirm that many of the key people who were necessary to achieve a solution were reluctant to reward what they perceived as the high-handed and “bullying” tactics employed by Federal Way city leaders.

As a result, von Reichbauer and Eide’s negotiations were done quietly behind the scenes. The two worked together to persuade key politicians to set aside their frustration with Federal Way city leaders and focus on the needs of the citizens of Federal Way, all while appealing to a shared commitment to building a regional transit system.

Federal Way leaders were noticeably absent from the Feb. 6 press conference, and that wasn’t an accident. They appear to have been excluded, as part of the negotiations, to send them a political message. Many felt Federal Way leaders had become part of the problem. However, von Reichbauer and Eide also tried to get them back in the game on better terms by calling upon Mayor Priest and the city council to join in the spirit of cooperation as a regional partner and become part of the solution.

Three-county regional politics is a tricky endeavor, and von Reichbauer and Eide demonstrated what bi-partisan regional leadership and quiet diplomacy looks like. Sometimes it isn’t pretty, but in this case, it was effective. Now the region is watching to see what lessons Federal Way learned and how its leaders react.

There will be more on this story.

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