Have you seen the elevated light rail system at SeaTac Airport? Then get ready, they are headed our way and the decision on how they will get here is scheduled for this summer. What will we be in 30 to 40 years?
Will we continue to be a bedroom community that provides workers for other parts of the region? Or will we develop our own economic engine that employs our friends and neighbors while welcoming commuter workers from Seattle, Tacoma and the Eastside?
The Sound Transit board will make what may be the most important economic and transportation decision in western King County and Federal Way’s history, although it will be our children that receive the benefit.
The question is simple: What will be the preferred route for light rail from the Angle Lake station, currently under construction on State Route 99, south through Kent-Des Moines and Federal Way to Tacoma? It is a large area and the answer is full of both technical and political challenges, as well as differences of opinion. And it will be followed by the next biggest vote in our history. A public vote to fund the route.
For the last few years, Sound Transit staff have been receiving input on and evaluating different options.
While there are several variations, there are two primary options. State Route 99 or Interstate 5. Unsurprisingly, there is disagreement among the many stakeholders on what the right answer should be.
Unfortunately, there will be winners and losers. Choices have to be made between saving some current businesses, or planning for what our business climate may look like in 30 years. At the same time, many renters who need the mass transit system the most could lose their place to live.
According to Sound Transit’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement of benefits and cost of the competing routes, the SR-99 option would have stops at Highline College, South 272nd/Redondo Heights Park and Ride and in Federal Way near the Transit Center.
It has the most land for future economic development and 119 to 130 acres available for transit-oriented development. It would carry 1,000 to 2,500 more riders per day than the I-5 options.The SR-99 option would result in only 36 units of residential displacements, but may result in 90 to 104 business displacements in areas along the route. It also could be the most expensive at $1.70 to $1.77 billion as the cost of displacements are included in the totals. Financial assistance is available for those displaced.
The I-5 alignment would not have a stop at Highline College, but would have one near the college but closer to I-5. It would also have a stop on South 272nd at Star Lake, and in Federal Way near the Transit Center. This alignment would have less ridership and is the reverse of SR-99, as it displaces less business, up to 29, but also has a significantly higher residential displacement of up to 304 units. It would cost the least at $1.38-$1.54 billion.
The Highline College president and board, and the 30th District Democrats favor the SR-99 alignment as it will build a new economy along the corridor, provide new jobs and fulfills the goal of having the rail line actually move more people from one place to another. Federal Way provides over 3,300 students to Highline, which is the largest number of students to the college compared to any other city.
Most of the rail users are more likely to be students and employees of business, rather than owners of business. A large number of users will be employees on the lower end of the income level who need the service to survive. The Greater Federal Way Chamber of Commerce did not formally endorse either alignment. However, a reading of their Statement of Principles nicely finesses the choice question, while clearly emphasizing the business, economic development and ridership advantages of the SR-99 option.
Elected officials from SeaTac, Kent, Des Moines and Federal Way favor the I-5 route as it displaces less current businesses and is cheaper. However, that short-term thinking appears to be concerned primarily with two-year and four-year election cycles rather than truly envisioning what a new south King County economy might look like 40 years from now.
One late addition alternate route that politicians favor actually departs the Angle Lake station on SR-99 and near the Kent-Des Moines exit has a “bulge” east to I-5 to save a few business, while eliminating residential units of likely rail users. It then turns back west to 30th Street, rather than Highline College, then turns again back east to I-5 behind Lowes. That leaves the Highline station almost a quarter mile from the college.
It also adds the cost of an elevated foot bridge over SR-99 in order to serve Highline College. With 16,000 students and staff, there should be a station on the west side of SR-99 at the college. The bulge also ignores the move of the Federal Aviation Administration to an area near South 216th in 2017, which would result in the need for a station to serve the 1,600 employees, or the potential growth in the South 260th area. Both are shown as possible locations with the SR-99 alignment and were actually requested by the participants in the public meeting phase. Neither is shown on the I-5 route.
Another reason some politicians oppose SR-99, is they feel it would be embarrassing if they allowed all the beautification work done in the medians to be torn up. However, some of the higher cost of the alignment is because the train would be elevated in many places. Some of the work may need to be replaced, but not all. Homes, apartments and businesses involving people’s lives will be displaced, the loss of some replaceable beautification should be low on the priority list. And concern about political image shouldn’t be part of the consideration.
Federal Way officials’ concern about some local businesses is reasonable. But balancing that against displacing poor people does not reflect the regional thinking that is needed in this decision. In contrast to the affluent Eastside, southwest King County residents are poorer, less healthy, live in worse housing conditions, the area has a higher unemployment rate and more residents below the poverty line. Our residents will use the service.
The four cities have agreed they want to avoid displacing some business in the Kent-Des Moines area, which moves the station closer to 30th. Federal Way officials seem to understand the logic for having the Highline station on the west side of SR-99 at the college, but won’t support it because they do not want the route to continue south on SR-99 as it would require a change to their downtown park plan. Since they are going to tear up some of the park they just built, that seems a questionable viewpoint.
And there is plenty of time to make a planning adjustment. Some residents wonder if access to the Performing Arts and Conference Center is also being favored over worker ridership. Also, Canadian interests who own land south of The Commons mall have been visible at the hearings, which raises the question of whether they are trying to steer City Hall politicians and Sound Transit toward their property for financial gain. Federal Way City Hall has favored the I-5 alignment for several years, prior to the key data even being available. One of the reasons was that it would be faster. It won’t. Current data shows the travel time of 12 to 13 minutes for both alignments.
The Sound Transit board will make the final decision. County Council members from this area, David Upthegrove and Pete von Reichbauer sit on the board, as does County Executive Dow Constantine.
There is an old saying, a politician thinks about the next election, a leader thinks about the next generation. The city’s support for I-5 over SR-99 seems to embrace more political thinking. Twenty-five years ago the valley cities were debating this same issue.
They chose to think more of the future and tried to anticipate what future transit-oriented development would look like and what it could achieve.
The current thinking seems to be let’s do it as cheaply as possible when clarity of long-term vision is sorely needed. With between 200,000 and 640,000 more riders per year and twice as many acres available for economic development, the future income could offset the higher cost of the Highway 99 option. The I-5 option means the very people the system is being developed to serve will get the least service. And a route that looks more like a snake, than an efficient straight line, may cause people in 2040 to ask, “What in the world were those people thinking back in 2015?”
Full disclosure, I serve on both the Federal Way Chamber of Commerce board and the Highline board of trustees and I support the positions of each on this topic. However, the thoughts and comments in this column are mine alone.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn: email@example.com.