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November 16, 1999
By RAGAN WILLIS
Journal Staff Reporter
Planning for light rail has become a sophisticated affair since the first community meetings in December 1997.
Two years ago, creating a vision for Sound Transit's then $1.7 billion, 23-mile light rail route was a new sort of game for grownups. To play, people trekked to community centers and college auditoriums for Saturday workshops, group discussions and mock urban planning exercises.
Sound Transit even provided snacks; bagels and cream cheese, plus gourmet coffee, helped keep tensions down and good sportsmanship high.
But the fun ended long before the game. People quickly learned that light rail would not be a win-win for everyone; and experienced players -- lobbyists, lawyers and consultants -- upped the ante as people sought ways to pull ahead.
Four new watchdog groups, one civil rights complaint and a couple of legal threats later, Sound Transit is moving forward with the controversial plan. The agency's board is expected to select stations, a route and a maintenance base site at its meeting Thursday.
However, Sound Transit isn't the only one revving its engine. From North Seattle to Tukwila, those who fear the potential impacts of the rail are making plans to get what they want for the regional system.
Mark Capestany, president of Southeast Seattle's Save Our Valley (SOV) organization, is clear on what folks in Rainier Valley want: to be treated the same as the rest of the city's neighborhoods.
Although "tunnel it" has been SOV's mantra since the group formed a year ago, Capestany said equality is the group's real mission.
Capestany helped launch SOV after learning an at-grade system would oust several local businesses. He believes Sound Transit's locally preferred alternative will cause safety problems and split the community in two.
In its first month, SOV attracted more than 300 members, and managed to raise nearly $30,000 toward hiring an attorney and doing outreach work.
Although SOV has already filed a civil rights complaint against the agency with both the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Housing Authority, the group will wait until Sound Transit obtains project approval -- called a record of decision -- from the FTA before pursuing more legal recourse.
The record of decision basically certifies the adequacy of the project's environmental review process and itemizes Sound Transit's commitments to mitigating impacts. Sound Transit expects to obtain approval by the end of the year.
After that, SOV plans to file a civil rights suit against Sound Transit. The group also will send a delegate to Washington, D.C. in late December or early January to garner federal support for a tunnel.
In the meantime, members are busy collecting signatures to put a Neighborhoods First! Initiative on the ballot. The initiative, launched by SOV member George Curtis, would preclude an at-grade light rail system in the city of Seattle.
Sound Transit Spokesman Clarence Moriwaki said the agency has no response to SOV's plans.
"How can we respond to something that hasn't happened yet?" he said. "Until a lawsuit is filed, we can't do anything."
Besides, building a regional system isn't about pleasing everybody, Moriwaki said. As long as the agency can back its decisions with sound reasoning and facts, lawsuits will fizzle out.
"It would make public works projects history if there wasn't a lawsuit," he added. " If we're looking for 100 percent agreement, we'd be gridlocked until doomsday."
SOV members say winning isn't necessarily their objective. If Sound Transit is tied up in court, work could be delayed -- drastically affecting the agency's tight budget and schedule.
Even that isn't much of a threat, according to Moriwaki.
"The only thing that could halt plans is if a temporary injunction occurs. Other than that, work still continues."
Calling the neighborhood an "endangered species" in Seattle, Capestany says it's crucial to protect residents and local shop owners in the Valley. After all, he noted, nowhere else in the city can 80 different languages and a wealth of ethnic stores and restaurants be found.
The community's fragile economy would be badly crippled by a four-car train barreling down its major corridor, he said.
Sound Transit staff determined that building a four-mile tunnel through Rainier Valley would cost about $400 million more than an at-grade system.
"It's not that it's infeasible, but it is impractical," said Sound Transit spokesperson Denny Fleenor. "Tunnels are designed to go through hills, not valleys. Besides a tunnel certainly wouldn't eliminate construction impacts."
James Irish, Sound Transit's environmental manager for light rail, noted that although Sound Transit didn't view SOV's proposal as a "reasonable alternative, " consideration was given to a shorter, less costly tunnel in the Valley. That tunnel would begin in Columbia City, traveling about a mile before connecting with Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.
Sound Transit board members have tacked on a $50 million mitigation fund to the project to help pay for improvements in Rainier Valley and ease construction impacts.
SOV, however, isn't putting its eggs in that basket.
"The agency is already over budget and is looking for ways to cut back," Capestany said. "I don't think we'll see the $50 million."
Although Sound Transit had gotten some heat earlier in the year over poor communications from community groups and its own Citizens Oversight Panel, a 17-member group charged with overseeing the agency's performance, Capestany said SOV's beef with the agency isn't about outreach.
"Sound Transit has listened to us, but they haven't heard us," he said. "Mayor Schell and Ron Sims have thrown out a few trial balloons, but after all that has been said and done, the initial plan is still intact."
SOV doesn't speak for everyone in the valley. Some folks there are fairly pleased with the light rail plans, as is.
Diane Davies, co-ordinator of the Rainier Valley Transit Advisory Committee, says RVTAC supports an at-grade system.
"We definitely support light rail," Davies said. "We also support the $50 million investment fund, and the Beacon Hill Station `shell-out."'
RVTAC formed to provide a forum for established groups in Rainier Valley to talk about transit. For instance, members include leaders from several chambers of commerce and community councils, as well as from SOV.
A city grant helped the group get its start, and a $57,000 grant from Sound Transit has kept it going. Davies said that if money and interest hold out, RVTAC will continue to meet for the next several years.
How to spend the $50 million mitigation fund is one of the issues the group hopes to solve in the future.
"The mitigation money has absolutely no structure or priorities yet. We want to make sure the community is involved in setting those priorities," she said.
Davies added that RVTAC also wants to help guide design work, business relocation plans, property displacement and mitigation for construction impacts.
Emotions ran so high in Tukwila over the proposed light rail, city officials admit that communications with Sound Transit were all but severed until tempers cooled.
Tukwila residents and officials are still fuming, however, primarily because Sound Transit's locally preferred route bypasses the city's major commercial core in Southcenter; and because it runs along Highway 99 -- known as the Tukwila International Boulevard.
Highway 99 has been transformed from a strip of drug dealers and prostitutes to a successful corridor through the city. Community members say they fear light rail will reverse their efforts.
"Where do we stand? Let me tell you. At a meeting Oct. 21, 300 people showed up to express strong opposition to running the rail line on the Tukwila International Boulevard," said John McFarland, city administrator for Tukwila.
Another problem is that Tukwila's high school, public swimming pool and library would be on one side of the tracks, with residential neighborhoods on the other. The barrier would increase safety risks for people traveling from their homes to use public amenities, according to Steven Lancaster, director of the city's Community Development Department.
The city may propose a route that uses part of Interstate 5 and state Route 599 from the Boeing Access Road. That alternative keeps rail off Highway 99, but does not reach the urban center, which is considered a crucial flaw by many businesses owners in Tukwila's central business district.
McFarland said if Sound Transit opts for the Highway 99 route, sparks will fly.
"The city will exercise every opportunity available to make sure Sound Transit does not bisect the community," he said. "It will be a battle of survival. Instead of being a partner, we will become very troublesome for the agency."
Sound Transit and Tukwila staff have discussed Tukwila's alternative plan, and the transportation agency has agreed to examine the costs and impacts of the proposed route, according to James Irish of Sound Transit.
If the plan appears feasible, Sound Transit will launch a more intense environmental analysis.
"If it's decided that Tukwila's route is the one everyone wants to build, we'll play catch up in the environmental process," Irish said.
He added that the Nov. 18 vote doesn't necessarily preclude revisions of the plan, at least not in the case of Tukwila.
"Construction is set to begin much later in Tukwila, so the route decision isn't as urgent as, say, the tunnel under Capitol Hill."
Where to place a 30-acre maintenance base in Seattle's industrial district south of downtown is a decision that won't please everyone.
Five of the seven proposed sites are in the North Duwamish industrial area -- a place almost fully developed with business. In fact, more than 60,000 blue-collar jobs are provided within the industrial core.
Displacing even a couple of businesses could have an serious ripple affect, since many of the manufacturing and freight companies are interdependent.
Seattle Industry for Responsible Transit members say if the facility must go in the industrial district, it belongs on the Rainier Brewery site where its impacts would be the least severe.
King County Councilmember and Sound Transit Boardmember Rob McKenna has suggested building on a small site, then expanding as more space was needed.
However, Mary Jo Porter, deputy light rail director for Sound Transit, said opting for a smaller site may not be a good move.
"Reducing the site means a second base would be needed right away; and that means more businesses would be lost than if we started out with one, large site," she said.
Further, at a smaller site, prearranging the rail cars in four-car concerts would be impossible -- which invites opportunity for accidents and breakages, she added.
Porter said Sound Transit staff are considering the feasibility of a Rainier Brewery site, and are working with local businesses to address possible relocation.
For the University of Washington, light rail is a doubled-edged sword. With thousands of students commuting to school each day, a high-speed mass transit system would be a huge boon. However, if built too close to campus, the system could sabotage research under way inside the university's prized new physics and life sciences buildings located on the southwest corner of the campus.
"As our scientists would say, distance is the one known mitigation that doesn't erode over time," said Bridgett Chandler, UW's assistant vice president for regional affairs. "But it's a difficult situation, because we need to serve our students."
The problem lies with the vibrations generated by the electric trains, which could disturb researchers' ability to make precision measurements.
UW scientists and Sound Transit have been working to resolve the issue since last February, but so far, a strategy hasn't been found.
"The good news is that Sound Transit and their consultants have made an recommendation for the agency's budget that includes mitigation at the tracks," Chandler said.
Placing a floating concrete slab on the floor of the tunnel before the tracks are laid is one idea on the table. The slab would absorb some of the vibration. Chandler says mitigating at the source is the best way to minimize problems, although some extra padding is in order inside the buildings.
For instance, the UW may install isolation tables -- designed to absorb vibration -- in the research rooms.
"We'll be doing some work on our end, too; but it makes more sense not to make the pollution in the first place, rather than filter it out," Chandler said.
Although UW officials and Sound Transit staff say a solution is on the way, questions still linger, such as whose going to pay for the mitigation needed on campus.
"It's an issue that has not come to closure yet," said Joe Gildner, Sound Transit geotechnical engineer. "The next step is to look at all the issues, and come up with a strategy; but we don't have a roadmap as to what that will be."
Trouble is also brewing at north end of campus.
The proposed station at Northeast 45th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast aims to serve both the campus and the University District commercial core. Initially, UW officials and business owners on the "Ave" assumed the station would have multiple portals: on the east side serving the campus and on the west side for the Ave.
Due to engineering difficulties, Sound Transit staff proposed moving the entire station onto campus.
In a letter to Sound Transit, UW officials, community planners and U-District Chamber of Commerce members wrote that those changes have caused them "to question whether the new proposal best meets the needs of local businesses, residents, and churches... -- the very stake holders the transit system is intended to benefit."
Chandler says that working with UW's construction experts, the university developed a number of station options. Plus, the UW Alumni Association may consider incorporating a station entrance on the site of its current building, and The University Bookstore has offered part of its site.
"Also, through various excavation and construction techniques -- such as rerouting 15th Avenue, we think we came up with some good ideas," she said.
However, one proposal would take out several business on 15th Avenue, as well as displace the Malloy Apartments. That plan riled shop owners and residents in the area who accused UW of simply wanting to shove light rail on the business side to avoid impacts on their own.
Chandler said that plan was only suggested as a worst-case scenario.
"We've been portrayed as the `Big Bad U,' and that simply isn't true," she said. "Light rail is expected to give the Ave a shot in the arm, and we want to make sure it serves that area as well as the `U."'
Because the university is publicly owned, Sound Transit can't build anything on the property unless it's permitted by the UW Board of Regents. Chandler says the agency still must address several issues before permission is granted.
For instance, siting decisions cannot compromise U.W. capital projects, the loss of property use must be compensated, parking must be replaced and a viable security system, including extra staffing inside the station, must be approved to protect the safety of students and faculty, according to Chandler.
"The Regents have to address the big picture," she said. "Plus, if Northeast 45th Street is the terminus, more problems, such as traffic increases, will need to be addressed before the Regents okay the project."
According to Donald W. Hopps, director of the Institute for Washington's Future, Sound Transit is basically tripping over its own rules.
In his recent report, "Meeting the Challenge: Making Sound Transit Work," Hopps states that the agency's process and plan have "become creatures of a mandate whose internal contradictions are making rational results more difficult to achieve."
In other words, he said, Sound Transit's rules have put the agency in a straight jacket.
"They've put themselves in a position where it is almost impossible to move and be flexible. Sound Transit is damned if they do, and damned if they don't," he said. In particular, they are in a box, but it's a false box that they've created in their own imagination."
Hopps says several principles are clogging the works, including the agency's mandate to stay on time and on budget.
While making that commitment was one of the plan's selling points in the November 1996 vote, it prevents Sound Transit from addressing critical concerns that have arisen since voters approved the system. While costs mount, light rail is being stripped down to the bone in order to fit the budget.
"As the plans become less and less, Sound Transit is becoming more and more vulnerable to lawsuits and not getting more funds for Phase II," he said.
SOV's claim that North Seattle is getting preferential treatment is more than just whining, according to Hopps. The larger the investment in Capitol Hill, the larger the gap in investments between affluent areas and low-income and minority communities in the Rainier Valley and along the Highway 99 corridor.
Hopps says the agency's preferred route doesn't do enough to serve low-income communities, and he believes the tunnels add to the disparity.
"The tunnels are too big for the kind of system we're talking about," he said. "Making a choice to build tunnels means not doing other things that are much more important."
To shrink the ballooning costs of the system as well as extend the route to Northgate, several Sound Transit board members last month proposed a plan they believe would still provide an efficient system, while addressing some of the community's concerns.
Their plan calls for deferring construction on the Graham Street and Royal Brougham stations and a new entrance to Westlake station, combined with new revenue sources -- such as state tax breaks.
Mary Jo Porter agreed that the proposal would provide an efficient system, and said it is being studied further by staff.
Hopps, however, still shakes his head no.
"We're better off not investing in light rail right now, bringing in better bus service instead. Then we can take the time to plan a system that will work for the region."
Hopps added that the passage of Initiative 695 throws everything up in the air.
"No one really knows what the impacts of I-695 will be," he said. "If we only have the money for one last major transportation project, do we really want it to be this light rail system?