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Wednesday, January 27, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Light-Rail Transit Plan -- On Wrong Track? -- Many People Who Live And Work Along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South Believe The Current Transit Plan Unfairly Favors Residents Of North Seattle

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

Hang Dang has heard the promises of economic benefits that will accompany the new light-rail commuter train running down the middle of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South in front of her hair and nail salon.

What she fears the train will deliver is something else: Noise, safety hazards and obstacles for customers. She worries the disruption will wreck the business she built from scratch six years ago.

"I don't want it in front of my spot, going up and down every four or five minutes. I just don't want it," she said.

Instead of feeling included in the planning for the $1.9 billion public works project that will transform her neighborhood, she feels left out. Sound Transit, the regional agency that will build the system, hasn't even distributed a Vietnamese-language summary of the details to Dang and other Southeast Asian business owners.

Dang belongs to Save Our Valley, a group waging a last-minute battle to get the light-rail tracks placed underground - just as they will be in the more affluent, largely white neighborhoods north of downtown.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency, charged with monitoring federally funded projects for fairness to minority and poor communities has also thrown up a red flag, complaining that the project's downsides are concentrated in Rainier Valley.

Save Our Valley's opposition illustrates how many in Southeast Seattle believe resources and amenities are being divided unfairly in the light-rail project that will run from North Seattle to Sea-Tac airport.

The controversy also shows how neighborhood planning can bypass or ignore some communities, even if well-intentioned planners and activists show up at every public meeting.

Critics find their best ammunition in Sound Transit's own study, the draft environmental-impact statement released in December. It presents the worst-case effects of running a train through city neighborhoods and suburbs:

-- The average travel time for motorists on or near that stretch of MLK Way would jump by as much as a half a minute at dozens of intersections. Forty intersections on the 4.6-mile train route on MLK Way would be closed to left turns.

-- Noise and visual barriers could become a problem for businesses and homes along or near the MLK route. By contrast, such problems will be "low" north of downtown, according to the impact statement.

-- To make way for the train and other amenities, Sound Transit would have to buy all or part of more than 300 properties in Southeast Seattle. That includes 73 homes and apartments, 69 commercial or industrial sites and four public parcels or churches. In the northern stretch, from downtown through Capitol Hill to the University District and possibly Northgate, Sound Transit would only have to purchase all or part of 49 properties because much of the route would be underground.

-- Sound Transit would spend roughly $154 million per mile from downtown to Northgate, but just $47 million per mile on MLK Way.

Many in Southeast Seattle say those numbers paint an all-too familiar picture. Residents describe their community as forgotten or frequently dumped on.

Paul Bay, who heads the light-rail project for Sound Transit, said, "They've been promised stuff from the city and county and state that were never delivered. I don't blame them for being resentful. On the other hand, I don't want to carry the burden of 50 years of resentment when we're just starting out."

Bay said the project will bring Southeast Seattle benefits: Travel time will drop by a half on the new system for riders from Rainier Valley, where more residents rely on public transportation than anywhere else. And he said Sound Transit will create a "wonderful urban boulevard" to replace what now seems like an expressway.

In response to community concerns, Sound Transit is now proposing to shrink the width of the proposed train route by as much as 14 feet - reducing the numbers of homes and businesses that would have to be demolished. A tunnel is still under consideration, but Bay believes the $400 to $500 million additional cost makes it an unrealistic option.

Surface route preferred?

Until recently, planners thought a street-level train along MLK Way was what residents wanted. A decade ago, the initial proposals called for skipping Southeast Seattle, following a less congested route along the Duwamish River.

In 1992, the city persuaded planners to put the line through the Rainier Valley. Planners first discussed a subway through Southeast Seattle, but Johnathon Jackson, a Sound Transit manager for community relations, said local residents supported surface or elevated tracks to spur development.

Those were the two options included when the transit plan was approved by voters in 1996.

In 1997, Jackson said community groups and residents pushed to get the elevated-track option eliminated. Rainier Avenue business owners got the route shifted to the wider and less developed MLK Way.

Several Southeast Seattle residents went on tours to Portland and Vancouver to see light-rail systems, for example. But then they learned the Seattle trains would be twice as long as the ones in Portland - as long as a football field.

"We were led to believe it was going to be much quieter than it was," said Bill Wippel, who runs the Union Gospel Mission in Holly Park. "When we understood how long the trains would be, that they might have to put up sound barriers, that just blew us away."

MLK Way is changing

Along MLK Way is a small but growing number of Vietnamese businesses, part of a revitalization that is changing Southeast Seattle. A collection of small, family-owned restaurants, cleaners, electronic shops and grocery stores lure Southeast Asians from as far away as Olympia and Everett.

The Vietnamese community didn't mobilize until December, when Sound Transit sent letters to property owners and businesses, warning that they might be displaced by a train route.

As those like Dang listen to reports and rumors about the transit plan, fear and distrust is growing.

"The Vietnamese, the residents and business owners on MLK, are really getting shafted on this," said Huy La, a corporate attorney who is volunteering to work with the Vietnamese businesses.

La twice asked Sound Transit to distribute a Vietnamese translation of the study to the businesses. The agency hasn't done so.

Jackson said he has the translation, but it hasn't been double-checked for accuracy. He believes the agency has conducted an exemplary outreach effort, but concedes it needs to do better work among those who don't speak English. The city only added Vietnamese-speaking liaisons six months ago; Sound Transit didn't hire someone who speaks Vietnamese until November.

Bay acknowledges that property and business owners most affected by the MLK route received notice late.

"The decision to send that out late was to ensure that we had the most accurate list of the potential properties affected. We didn't want to send it out to people and get them all excited if they weren't affected," Bay said.

To qualify for federal funding, Sound Transit must demonstrate to the Federal Transit Administration that it has provided a "fair and equitable" planning process. So far, FTA officials believe it has.

Environmental officials, though, see room for improvement. While Sound Transit reached out to established neighborhood groups, it missed people who, because of language and cultural differences, are not part of those organizations, said Joyce Kelly, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Civil Rights.

The EPA recommends that Sound Transit begin publishing brochures and documents in Vietnamese. It also urges the agency to reconsider all options for Southeast Seattle, including a tunnel. "A key principle of environmental justice," says Kelly, "is early and meaningful involvement."

A decade of change

Southeast Seattle is a much different place than it was in 1989, when the process of planning for a light-rail system began.

Crime is down, business is growing, property values are climbing. More middle-class and white-collar professionals have moved in, and so have QFC and Eagle Hardware. Safeway and Hollywood Video are doing brisk business at the Rainier Valley Square, and Columbia City just got a gourmet Italian restaurant.

"We are rebuilding this community block by block, and if this isn't done right, it could kill it," said Mark Capestany, president of Save Our Valley. As part of their campaign, the group has hired consultant Blair Butterworth, a political adviser to Gov. Gary Locke, to help fight the plan.

Others still favor the street-level system and are pleased by Sound Transit's promise of a $50 million community investment fund for Rainier Valley.

"We have the commitment to use the monies for improvements that we've been wanting for a long time. And it doesn't require a hole in the ground," said longtime Southeast Seattle resident and activist Ethel Boyar.

City and Sound Transit planners will make their pitch for the MLK route to the Sound Transit board tomorrow in Everett. They are likely to face a packed and hostile crowd at a hearing at the Filipino Community Center in Southeast Seattle tomorrow night.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and City Council members Richard McIver and Margaret Pageler, meanwhile, are drafting their own recommendation.

Schell spokeswoman Vivian Phillips said the mayor ". . . has no desire to see a community split down the middle.

"He has no desire to see South Seattle residents forsake safety or take on a high level of noise and disruption. He wants those things to be minimized, but he also wants those individuals to be served (by transit) and to have ongoing benefits from it."

Seattle Times staff reporter Tan Vinh contributed to this report.

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Public hearing on transit plan

Sound Transit will hold the last public hearing on its draft environmental-impact statement tomorrow at 6 p.m. at the Filipino Community Center, 5740 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S.

Tomorrow afternoon, planners will present a revised proposal for a street-level light-rail route on Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. to the Sound Transit board at its meeting at 2 p.m. at the Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett.

Published Correction Date: 01/30/99 - Bill Wippel Was Incorrectly Identified In This Story About A Planned Light-Rail System In Southeast Seattle. Wippel Is Community-Relations Director For The Union Gospel Mission And Does Not Represent The Mission's Views On The Light-Rail Proposal. Wippel's Comments Were Based On His Involvement As A Leader Of The Holly Park Merchants And Mlk @ Holly Street Neighborhood Planning Associations.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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