Sound Transit coming to town, but facing challenges | Inside Politics

Bob Roegner. Contributed photo

When Sound Transit 3 was passed by voters last fall, it established a high point in the next phase of an ambitious plan to provide mass transit to the region, and finally to Federal Way.

Sound Transit was off to a wobbly start several years ago but was righted by a board of regional leaders and former Executive Director Joni Earl. Even after Earl’s retirement and the hiring of Peter Rogoff, Sound Transit’s reputation for professionalism remained good. But with voters experiencing sticker shock over the cost of their license tabs, and questions about Rogoff’s political judgment over plans to host a fundraiser at his home for a member of his board, the last several months have been more challenging for the agency. The fundraiser was moved after questions were raised, but the publicity didn’t help the agency’s image.

ST3 will take Sound Transit from Angle Lake to Highline College and then down Interstate 5 to Federal Way in 2024. With public attention focused on South King County, the next few years will be crucial to Sound Transit’s success and reputation as it seeks voter confidence to go on to Tacoma and then, likely, Olympia.

Usually, Sound Transit is low-key and avoids press attention other than ceremonial groundbreakings or ribbon cuttings. The staff is high caliber and works hard behind the scenes with local governments and residents to resolve issues before they become problems.

While regional voters supported ST3 as the logical extension of growth and progress, however, many were shocked when they opened their car tab statement and found amounts beyond expected. South King County residents have fewer financial resources than people in Seattle or the Eastside, and many felt the costs were excessive. Federal Way did not vote to support ST3, and many residents remembered the expensive party Sound Transit held in conjunction with the Capital Hill project in Seattle.

Even though Sound Transit has used a car tab formula approved by the state Legislature for several years, which was reauthorized in 2015, the combination of issues and different parties controlling the two legislative houses has opened the door for Sound Transit to find itself as a poster child for those looking for political gain heading into the 2018 legislative elections.

Bills to change the funding formula along with Sound Transit’s governance structure have been discussed, but no consensus has been achieved. Sound Transit has not been supportive of most of the proposals to change funding, as the agency still has to build the light rail system, and less money would lengthen the time for project completion. But one of the ideas that could appeal to Rogoff is a rebate approach for people with low income. That could be helpful in South King County.

Here in Federal Way, Sound Transit is starting the land acquisition process to pave the way for the light rail extension. Letters will go out to affected property owners this week, and Sound Transit staff will follow up. A significant benefit to Sound Transit’s Federal Way location could be transit-oriented development around the station. The valley cities of Auburn and Kent worked hard to establish commuter rail in the 1980s and ‘90s, and the benefit to their downtowns is very visible today.

But this process may get caught up in local politics and have its own political problems, with Mayor Jim Ferrell being challenged by Councilwoman Susan Honda and Councilman Martin Moore being challenged by local businessman Roger Flygare. Incumbent Bob Celski’s opponent will also be announcing soon. Sharry Edwards, who is running for the seat expected to be vacated by Jeanne Burbidge, does not have an opponent, but the filing deadline is still several weeks away. Both Honda and Moore were actively engaged with suggestions for Sound Transit staff at a recent council briefing. Residents and businesses should become familiar with the route and plans for the central business district. Also, the Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce will be of assistance in getting local businesses and Sound Transit staff together to help answer questions. They scheduled Sound Transit to address their members at their May luncheon.

Despite some lapses, Sound Transit’s staff and accomplishments are impressive. They will be a major part of our community, but their future may hinge as much on politics as talent over the next few years.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn and retired public official. He can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.