If you were looking for a political issue that is tailor-made for Federal Way’s strong mayor form of government, then Sound Transit just gave it to you.
Sound Transit shocked new Mayor Skip Priest and the city council recently when their spokesman said that Federal Way wouldn’t be getting the light rail extension from Sea-Tac Airport to the city in 2023, but rather 2034 or 2040. In addition, there was the news that we were the only project cut in the sub-region areas, and that we would still be paying for other projects.
If that wasn’t enough, another Sound Transit spokesperson said additional votes may be required for the Federal Way extension to ever be built.
The reason? Money. It always comes down to money. There is a projected shortfall of $3.9 billion in Sound Transit’s $18 billion, 15-year plan.
As voters, we have chosen to rely primarily on sales tax to fund many public services. Since all levels of government are cutting costs due to lagging tax revenues, some delay shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Other projects have been delayed as well. But the problem is worse in South King County.
Since that city council meeting, we have learned that we aren’t the only ones being hurt. More importantly, none of this is actually final yet, and will be decided by the Sound Transit governing board.
Why is it an opportunity? Because our mayor, with support from the city council, has a chance to show the voters the value of the new system and change the outcome. This is now a hot political issue where a city manager would not be as effective as an elected mayor.
Regional politics is one of the most fascinating and frustrating processes in which elected officials participate. There are issues above and below the surface — and in each community — with several moving agendas. It’s not a game for amateurs.
Seattle, as the central city, is the biggest player — although Mayor Mike McGinn does not have the regional clout that past Seattle mayors have had.
The Eastside with its large population and higher income is a force that can be an asset or an enemy. They are going to look out for their interests. The mayor of Redmond serves on the Sound Transit board as does a council member from Bellevue. Both cities have projects they want. Bellevue has a split council on its options, which could raise the price tag, and some want a tunnel downtown, which could add millions more. Issaquah also has a representative.
In the South King County area, Kent and Auburn have projects. Tacoma is also a player. But without the Federal Way link, Tacoma’s projects won’t have as much impact. That is an important card for us to hold.
The Federal Way City Council passed a resolution stating its position in pretty blunt terms and presented it to the Sound Transit Board last week. That is helpful, but mostly window dressing. Success comes from finding more money, regional influence and the political skill to maneuver through the pitfalls of regional politics. Unlike local policy, which is mostly done in public, regional policy is usually decided behind the scenes.
The council has set the stage well with its anger and suggestion of breach of contract. It has gotten attention. Now they need to step back and let the mayor and his staff start working with other city and regional leaders to try and fashion a deal.
One person needs to orchestrate the strategic flow. And because the city needs to speak with one voice, that person is the mayor. By now, several things should be in the works. The mayor should have already scheduled a meeting with Sound Transit executive director Joni Earl, who is one of the sharpest public officials around. She isn’t going to want her board divided if she can avoid it. The mayor should include both of our area’s King County Council members, who are also Sound Transit board members, in the meeting. Also include Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, who is the Sound Transit board chair — and who might be looking for future political help from this area if he runs for governor.
Reach out to King County Executive Dow Constantine and meet the mayor of Sumner, both of whom are on the transit board. Mayor Priest can also use his contacts in Olympia, particularly Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond, who is also on the board.
While the mayor is working on those individuals, city staff will likely be working with transit staff on the options the city outlined in its resolution. The city council members can help behind the scenes by contacting elected officials they know, that the mayor doesn’t, who have influence with the transit board.
Where to get the needed money? First, don’t try and take advantage of Bellevue’s split council or get it from other suburban cities. With sub-region funding, we could lose their support on this and other issues. But you can watch the bidding process for low bids that might make money available. Seattle is hampered and vulnerable, even though the mayor and a council member serve on the transit board.
If Mayor Priest can unite the suburbs, some money might be moved from Seattle. Also, since Tacoma can’t do much without the Federal Way link, it’s worth the effort to approach Sound Transit about sharing money from Tacoma-Pierce to King County with future King County money going back to Pierce. A Tacoma transit board member already signaled some interest in the topic. Tacoma-Pierce County has three votes on the board.
Lastly, even in these difficult times, money still might be available from the state or federal governments. If Federal Way is skillful enough, the board might feel uniting to get extra money is preferable to an internal fight over current money.
This is a big challenge for the mayor. If he is able to move anything back to our project, it will be a big win. And it is doable. Federal Way’s loss stands out too much and the region will need our votes in the future.
Without movement, they won’t get them. This is a tailor-made opportunity for a win for Mayor Priest and the city.