Opinion

Commuter rail’s history goes back 20 years in King County

“Why have the Valley cities of Renton, Kent and Auburn had a commuter rail system for several years and we’re just now voting on the extension of rail from SeaTac to Federal Way?”

That’s a question I was asked a few weeks ago by a Federal Way resident. Yesterday, the election either continued the slow and steady implementation of regional mass transit — or put it off for a few years due to economic fears.

The answer to the question is history, geography, politics and a different form of government.

Several years ago, then-King County Councilman Gary Grant, who represented Auburn and Kent, invited the mayors of the Valley cities to a meeting in the lunchroom of the old Valley Newspaper offices next to Highway 167 in Kent.

Renton Mayor Barbara Shinpoch and Kent Mayor Isabel Hogan, two of the best I ever worked with, were there representing their cities’ interests. I attended on behalf of Auburn.

At the time, we all served on the old Metro Council, which was the governing board for regional transit and water issues. Metro was later folded into King County, then replaced by Sound Transit.

Councilman Grant, in looking at regional transportation problems, was concerned that the 40-person board — which included the mayor and council of Seattle, the county executive, county council and several suburban elected officials — would be too influenced by Seattle’s needs and that Seattle would get most of the money available. His challenge to all of us was to come up with a project we could all support, then use it as political leverage to provide some type of transit improvement for south King County.

Federal Way, SeaTac and Burien were not yet cities.

The common link between the Valley cities was the freeway, which meant involving the state, or the rail line, which had connected most of the major urban areas in Washington since pioneer days. The rail line hadn’t been used for commuters since the car took over as the public’s primary choice for transportation.

We all agreed to pursue a pilot project to bring back commuter transit between Seattle and Tacoma via the valley.

A key figure in this plan was Metro Transit Committee chairman Bob Neir, who was a Kirkland City Council member.

We were able to get Neir to ride the commuter train that runs between San Diego and Los Angeles so he could actually see a working system. Neir was a true regional thinker and saw the possibilities.

The pilot project started to move forward, and although it appeared dead many times, we kept fanning it back to life.

It had two major attributes: The rail line was already in place, which reduced capital costs, and it would affect a huge population in south King County and north Pierce County.

Over the years, other elected officials picked up the challenge, namely mayors Earl Clymer and Jesse Tanner in Renton and Dan Kelleher and Jim White in Kent. Mayor Chuck Booth followed me in Auburn.

After Federal Way, SeaTac and Burien became cities, they joined the other suburban leaders in supporting the commuter rail.

Mary Gates, a Federal Way City Council member, was a south county transit leader. But she and the other three cities were also looking ahead at the next part of the overall regional transit system, which would run a rail system south from Seattle to SeaTac International Airport through Federal Way to Tacoma.

They wanted political support for their communities’ needs. The Eastside wanted additional buses, and we helped Seattle with its challenges. Councilman Grant was able to get several county elected officials to support the project.

The pilot project became reality and is what you see today.

The discussion in the newspaper cafeteria occurred about 20 years ago. In a touch of political irony, had Metro Transit not been merged with King County, the system you voted on yesterday might have already reached Federal Way by now and possibly Tacoma. Yesterday’s vote wouldn’t have been necessary.

And this morning, many of you would be reading election results while commuting to work by train — not stuck in traffic on I-5.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.

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