Over the past year, no local story has generated more questions and public interest than the ongoing saga of Sound Transit’s decision to delay light rail to Federal Way — and City Hall’s subsequent reaction.
By way of background: Sound Transit staff announced in 2010 that due to the economic slowdown, the income from the public-voted sales tax for regional light rail was down by 25 percent overall in the regional service area. It is down by 32 percent in the South King County subarea of which Federal Way is a part.
The plan was to have rail construction proceed south on Pacific Highway from SeaTac Airport to Federal Way at S. 272nd Street by 2023. Due to the economic downturn, Sound Transit decided to delay the project’s anticipated completion until 2040.
At a meeting before the Federal Way City Council in May 2011, the city’s elected officials expressed their displeasure with Sound Transit’s decision and initiated an aggressive strategy to try and force Sound Transit to change its decision. The city plan included hiring lobbyists and threatening possible legal action.
I have tried to answer just a few of the many questions I received from citizens.
Q: Why was Federal Way delayed and what are sub-regions?
A: A significant drop in financial resources within the South King County sub-region is the reason for the delay. Sound Transit covers three transportation inter-connected counties — King, Snohomish and Pierce. Snohomish and Pierce are each considered sub-regions. King County is broken into three sub-regions — Seattle, the Eastside and South King County. Projects in each sub-region are funded by the taxpayers within that sub-region through voter-approved sales tax. The general theory is that one sub-region shouldn’t be expected to have their taxpayer money support another sub-region’s transportation needs. There is a limited ability to spend across sub-region boundaries in unusual circumstances when both sub-regions benefit. Bellevue wanted a very expensive addition to their system and Federal Way taxpayers likely wouldn’t want to support Bellevue’s desires. So cities can put up their own money for specific projects as Bellevue did. It is a geographic equity system, not a social equity system, by design. Sub-regions where taxpayers have the ability to spend more money could receive more benefit.
But this also helps protect a delicate political balance by prohibiting more powerful areas, such as Seattle, from trying to capture money from other areas. Commuter rail in the valley came about in part as a defensive strategy to ensure Seattle didn’t get all the federal transit money. The separation and protection was formalized in the formation of Sound Transit.
Q: Could Pierce County contribute money to help with Federal Way’s current problem, since they need us for light rail to get to them?
A: That option isn’t on the table now, but could be in the future. However, if Pierce County obligated their taxpayers’ money for Federal Way projects, then South King County taxpayers would have to pay for future Pierce County\Tacoma projects — likely at a higher cost as the economy improves. I’m not sure how Federal Way taxpayers would react to that option. Auburn taxpayers probably would not like it very much. Auburn and Federal Way are in the same sub-region.
Q: Could Federal Way be our own sub-region?
A: No, these projects are far too expensive for a city or area our size.
Q: How much money does that 25 percent Sound Transit was short actually add up to?
A: $3.5 billion. And yes, that’s a lot of money.
Q: The city said that Sound Transit “broke its promises.” Is that true?
A: Not really. Words have meaning. Sound Transit did not “cancel” the Federal Way extension. They “delayed” it from 2023 until 2040. One might argue that the delay after the public vote is a “broken promise.” But with the economy drying up, that seems like a stretch. If the economy improves, then the schedule will also improve. If it improves enough we could find ourselves back on track. If you want to help, make sure you spend your money in Federal Way.
Q: Was Federal Way the only project delayed?
A: According to Sound Transit, projects in Redmond, Bothell and Auburn were “deferred” until the economy improves.
Q: Someone from the City of Federal Way said we weren’t getting anything for our $12 million in taxes, but didn’t we get a parking garage?
A: The city spokesman says the first part of that question is incorrect. The city wants the original plan followed. However, the political tone of the debate did lead many citizens to feel like they were still paying for a plan they may never see. But the transportation plan also needs to be considered in the context of what we build for future generations, just as past generations built projects that benefit us today. Federal Way did receive the transit center parking garage worth $39.5 million. Not all of our citizens were enthusiastic about it, and the on-off-ramps cost about $27 million. According to Sound Transit, we also get about $12 million in bus service. So, we are receiving products for our money. The city was really questioning the specifics of light rail, which we pay for, but may not see for several years. The city had separate concerns about bus service. The recent quarterly review by Sound Transit did result in additional service for Federal Way.
Q: What was the Tiger Grant and S. 200th Street all about?
A: Sound Transit competed nationally with 828 other jurisdictions for a federal grant to extend rail from SeaTac Airport south to S. 200th Street. It was partially funded, and construction will start in 2013 and finish in 2016. That is a major piece of good news, as it keeps the project moving south toward Federal Way. There was some behind-the-scenes political intrigue about the City of Federal Way’s role in the process.
Q: Will the route continue to head south along Highway 99?
A: The Tiger Grant will continue rail south on Pacific Highway to S. 200th. Other funding will continue it as far as Highline Community College. After that is an open question. Sound Transit is required to do an “alternatives analysis” and consider both Highway 99 and I-5. In a simplified comparison, Highway 99 offers economic development opportunities along the route, while I-5 may be a little faster. The city has already voiced its support for the I-5 route and believes it might be cheaper. We don’t know if that is true, and won’t know until the analysis is done. You will hear significant debate over these two options in the future.
King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer, State Sen. Tracey Eide and Sound Transit Executive Director Joni Earl put together a plan to help keep the project moving forward by ensuring it is “shovel ready” when the economy improves. Since then, the issue has moved off the front page. That is probably a good thing and may help future discussions between Sound Transit and the city take a more positive direction. Transportation will continue to be a major part of the public debate for the next several years.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.