Politics and the Sound Transit Board’s big decision for South King County | Roegner

Fortunately, the Sound Transit Board of Directors will make the final decision on the location of the south operations maintenance facility (OMF) rather than officials from the affected cities.

The board is made up of 18 county and city officials from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. It is intended to provide a regional perspective to the mass transit system. If cities affected by the decision were making the decision, they might be more concerned with their own city first, or with an eye for election season and appeasement to voters.

South King County is a small part of a vast transit system intended to serve millions of people annually throughout the three-county area with the potential for expansion. But the question for many months has been, where will the location be for the OMF to serve Sound Transit’s extension to Federal Way and beyond?

Sound Transit started their draft environmental review with 24 potential sites along I-5, then cut the list to 20, then 6. They are now down to the final three sites. One is the Midway Landfill in Kent with its contaminated land, which hasn’t been used since the 1980s. The other two are in south Federal Way: one site is on South 336th Street, which is the Christian Faith Center campus, and the other is South 344th Street, which has several businesses including GarageTown and Ellenos Yogurt. Either location will result in dislocation of some businesses and residential areas. The politics — publicly and behind the scenes — have been disappointing, but not surprising given the potential impacts.

How did we get here?

The process began back in the 1980s and 1990s when the cities of Auburn, Kent, Tukwila and Renton worked with the old Metro council to establish commuter rail from Seattle to Tacoma through the valley. We recognized that the I-5 corridor would be the eventual long range answer to the movement of people from Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., to Olympia and on to Portland. The commuter rail was linked to the bus system to give residents from the valley cities, along with growing east King County and the Enumclaw plateau, a closer station to access mass transit to go to work north or south or attend major league sporting events in Seattle. The cities were able to use old rail lines from when trains were a more common mode of transportation.

Metro was replaced by Sound Transit a few years ago and taxpayers have continued to support the expansion of the Sound Transit system that Metro missed out on many years ago. Recently new connections to stations at Northgate, Roosevelt and the University District were announced for October. They will be followed by Lynnwood, Overlake, Redmond, Bellevue, Federal Way and Tacoma.

The Sound Transit Board is entering the final stage for selecting a location for the south OMF and the workers that will operate around the clock to keep the system functioning every day of the year. The facility is expected to employ up to 470 people, with many jobs paying $40 an hour or $83,000 per year. That’s an appealing new set of jobs for any city and an opportunity for South King County’s diverse workforce.

Sound Transit wants the OMF located in the best place for easy access to maintain the system and store 144 light rail train cars that will need to be cleaned and repaired. The final location will be selected by the Sound Transit Board of Directors. As part of the environmental review process, Sound Transit staff have been out meeting community members, property owners, home owners, businesses and those affected to answer questions or concerns.

The Midway Landfill at 68 acres is the most expensive to build at $1.7 billion to $2.8 billion because the property is a former landfill and will require special construction measures. Also, at 6-8 years, it will take the longest to build, and at $11 million is the most expensive to operate annually.

The Christian Faith Center site in Federal Way has 59 acres, 14 residences and two businesses that will be displaced. It will cost $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion to build with an annual operating cost of $10 million. The third location at South 344th Street will cost $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion to construct, has 65 acres will cost about $10 million annually to operate. Three churches will be displaced, along with 11 businesses to relocate, affecting 217 employees. Several residential areas would be displaced and both parcels have some forests, wetlands and streams that will need to be addressed.

Sound Transit’s environmental impact statement acknowledges that Ellenos Yogurt, with approximately 100 employees, and GarageTown will be difficult to relocate. Because of the potential disruptions to the churches, businesses and residential areas, many of those affected have been active in contacting Sound Transit staff, board members and Federal Way elected officials, encouraging selection of the Midway Landfill site despite the contaminated land and cost.

It is an election year for local officials in all suburban cities, and Federal Way city officials have publicly stated their support for the Midway site. Kent officials were able to get the Dick’s Drive-in /Lowe’s site deleted from the list earlier. And the rumor mill has been very active. We heard early in the process that Christian Faith Center might be a willing seller. However, more recently the attorney for Christian Faith Center contacted Sound Transit to state that the megachurch site would prefer to not be any alternative for the OMF south project. There have also been rumors that the mayor and city council in Federal Way would like something else developed on the two sites in the city limits, but again, no confirmation with facts or figures. Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell’s spokesperson said that the “other sites were prematurely eliminated,” leaving the two Federal Way sites and “a clearly damaged option.”

Still the mayor and council of Federal Way have declared their support for the Midway site, so it wasn’t surprising that Federal Way city staff had several reasons why neither Federal Way site would work with many of the city regulations.

Whether it’s election year politics, which it could be, or a preference for a different type of development, if we really care about the people who will become our neighbors and work at this facility, the Midway location should be the least desirable choice.

First, the known costs are almost twice as much taxpayer money to build on the Midway site, and it will take significantly longer to build than the other sites, due to the three different and unique structural safety options because of questions about the land. And it will cost more annually to operate. Fortunately, our two U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were able to add $1.9 billion to help with the funding for Lynnwood and Federal Way. However, the main reason Midway should be eliminated is the potential for health problems many years from now for the almost 500 people who will work there. I think it is callous to assume that any construction affecting that many people would be safe over the 6-8 years of construction, let alone after 30 years of working there.

Some Sound Transit Board members have also raised that as a concern. Nobody from either Kent or Federal Way sit on the Sound Transit Board, but South King County representation does exist: 7th District King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who represents Federal Way and Auburn, along with Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus sit on the Board, and both are well respected.

Regional thinking would suggest that either of the Federal Way sites would provide the easiest transition to the Tacoma Dome, the next stop, and would be a wiser use of taxpayer support. Also, the jobs Sound Transit would provide would have a positive impact on the community. Other areas for Federal Way leaders to advocate for would be keeping Ellenos in the city if possible, and encouraging any women and minority owned businesses affected to relocate within the city.

Public comment was taken up to April 19. The Sound Transit Board will select a preferred alternative and the final environmental impact statement will be prepared with all three locations and a final site chosen in 2022. There will be significant information for the Board to consider and the politics will continue. The big question is, what will their decision be based on?

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.