Federal Way plays hardball with light rail

A few years ago, the Mariners public relations theme to sell tickets was “The Mariners are Playing Hardball.”

A few years ago, the Mariners public relations theme to sell tickets was “The Mariners are Playing Hardball.”

Well, so it seems, is the Federal Way City Council.

In a surprise move, the city council recently voted to adopt a resolution supporting the biggest and most expensive transit option currently under discussion by the Sound Transit board.

The transit package is somewhat similar to the one voters defeated last fall, but is the only option that connects SeaTac Airport to Federal Way and Tacoma.

It also seems to be the option with the least political support, not only due to size, but also due to length of time to implement. Some of the projects wouldn’t get done until 2027.

Many regional leaders are skeptical of this option over economic worries. And with gas over $4 a gallon, taxpayers may be leery of what this will do to their pocketbooks.

The council’s move caught many by surprise. The council and its staff had been maneuvering behind the scenes for a second, less expensive option that would get light rail as far south as Highline Community College. This option would cost about $8 billion at 0.5 percent sales tax and would require another public vote in a few years to extend to Federal Way and Tacoma.

Federal Way’s least preferred option only goes as far south as 200th Street and would cost about $7 billion at 0.4 percent on sales tax. It would also require a second public vote.

Either of these options would take about 12 years to implement.

The council has two concerns. If they support one of the less expensive options, it doesn’t solve Federal Way’s problems.

A bigger, long-term concern is that either of the smaller options provides voters in other areas, most notably Seattle and the Eastside, with near term transit solutions, and it makes them less likely to vote for other areas, such as Federal Way, when their turn comes. Snohomish County, at the north end of the regional system, has voiced the same concerns.

Federal Way leaders voted unanimously for the resolution, but public comments suggest that some council members have reservations about supporting a package that has little likelihood of passage.

Additionally, a majority of the Federal Way City Council also made it clear that if one of the smaller options is selected for referral to the voters, they will publicly oppose it. This would put Federal Way at odds with Seattle and many other suburban cities including Kent, Des Moines and SeaTac that would benefit from passage. Given the firmness of the approach, it may also hamper any efforts to negotiate some other compromise by Federal Way leaders.

Another problem for Federal Way is Tacoma. As the primary beneficiary of the larger package, it is an important ally in Federal Way prevailing with the Sound Transit board. However, Tacoma doesn’t have a consensus on which package to support and their representative on the Sound Transit board made comments in the regional media expressing reluctance to go back to voters with a package similar to the one they had already turned down.

The other major debate is timing — when to put a transportation proposal on the ballot. Sound Transit staff favors this year’s fall ballot because of the expected large turnout for the presidential race, and they view rising gas prices as an incentive for people to vote for light rail. The other option is to put something on the ballot in 2009 or 2010.

Most leaders feel they only have one more shot at public approval and if it fails, they may have to wait several years to try again.

This is a very difficult set of decisions for Federal Way and regional leaders — with very large stakes. So, readers, what do you favor: A more expensive package that includes something for Federal way but may not pass? Or a phased approach that may have a better chance of passing and gets light rail farther south, but doesn’t do anything for Federal Way until some future vote?

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


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