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Monday, July 16, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Distorted facts led to Rainier rail route

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The region's top transit officials surrendered to political forces when they drew up plans for building light rail through South Seattle 10 years ago but continued producing reports leaving the impression that decisions were based on hard facts and immovable realities.

In fact, their reports after 1992 distorted the options and the costs of building light rail in South Seattle and painted an inaccurate picture of the possibilities, which influenced the selection of Rainier Valley as the preferred route.

The planned route down Rainier Valley has become the focus of planning efforts again as Sound Transit, the agency charged with building mass-transit systems for the region, determines in the coming weeks whether it can salvage its troubled light-rail project by building part of the southern segment first.

Sound Transit had planned to go north first, but the project ran $1 billion over budget and three years behind schedule largely because of the controversy and complexity associated with a proposed tunnel under Capitol Hill.

Like Sound Transit's decision to build a tunnel under densely populated Capitol Hill instead of going through the South Lake Union area and Eastlake, the choice of Rainier Valley is another instance of Sound Transit opting for a more expensive route when there was an alternative that could apparently be built for less money.

The southern route has its problems as well, including a federal lawsuit filed by residents who don't want train tracks running down the middle of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

The seeds of that conflict were planted in 1991, when key Seattle City Council members all but declared that they wouldn't endorse the rail project unless it went through Rainier Valley and served the minority residents there. Until then, studies repeatedly showed that a route along the Duwamish Waterway was a cheaper and more direct one.

Once the City Council's preference for Rainier Valley became clear, analysis of the two routes became skewed and Rainier Valley suddenly looked better on paper, according to records and interviews with those involved at the time.

Records show that on at least two occasions transit officials misrepresented details about the Duwamish alternative when key decisions were being made about route selection.

One top official involved in the system's planning said the misrepresentations were part of a deliberate effort to mislead the public and officials outside of Seattle, who didn't want to pay for light rail through Rainier Valley.

Others, including the former head of Sound Transit, deny there was any intent to deceive but acknowledge that inaccurate and misleading information was used to describe the choices to policy makers.

A few elected officials and community leaders from King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have talked about reviving the Duwamish route as a possible alternative. But doing so would take up to two years and cost millions of dollars because the alternative was dismissed before a full analysis was done.

Race was a factor

When the battle over Rainier Valley began in 1990, the area was assigned a low ranking in the region's 30-year transit plan, and residents there were none too pleased when they learned the following year that they were slated for better bus service but no rail.

Glover Barnes, then president of a citywide federation of community groups, responded to the news in a way that summed up the feeling of disenfranchisement that many people in the valley felt: "The whole Rainier Valley is optional. That's nothing new to us."

But Seattle politicians publicly questioned the wisdom of excluding some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city — and the people of color who accounted for 74 percent of the valley area's population — from what they described as the boom-town promise of light rail.

"To deprive the Rainier Valley of a light-rail system to get to jobs and other opportunities was very big in my mind," Norm Rice, former Seattle mayor, recalled in a recent interview. "If you looked at ridership and need, Rainier Valley would rise to the top."

It didn't seem to matter that the city's office of long-range planning offered little support for the argument that light rail would attract new business and development to the valley. Or that eight other cities had tried and failed to combat blight by running rail transit through economically depressed areas. Or that to make such a plan work, the city would have to spend millions more to help spur redevelopment in its southeastern areas.

Former City Councilwoman Jane Noland said she had no faith in the planning department's studies that indicated a negligible economic benefit from light rail. She said she was convinced from riding transit in other cities that new stations would provide a hub for new development. And she said that the line would be more successful because it would draw more riders than the Duwamish line.

There also was a sense that a racial and economic stigma was working against the valley.

Art Skolnik, former Metro manager who was in charge of the southern leg of the project in the early 1990s, said some people argued that no one would ride a system that went through Rainier Valley, which had a reputation as a low-income and higher-crime area.

Because those issues had been raised, anyone who opposed Rainier Valley ran the risk of being labeled a racist, said Bob White, a former Metro manager who assumed leadership of the region's transit efforts in 1995.

But costs also were a concern. Estimates in 1990 showed that a subway under Rainier Avenue would cost $392 million, at least $47 million more than estimates for an elevated rail line down the Duwamish.

Noland said she favored an underground system, but it "was always a very hard sell because the rest of the county didn't want to pay for it."

It would become an even harder sell in March 1991 when a new analysis pushed the cost of the Rainier Valley subway route to $577.4 million — $179 million more than the Duwamish route. The spread would later grow to as much as $310 million.

Duwamish costs added

By late 1991, however, it was already clear to transit planners that the project wasn't going anywhere unless it went through the valley.

"Jane Noland and a few others said, `If it doesn't go down Rainier Valley, we're not going to support it,' " Skolnik recalled. "Nobody argued with her, especially about something so sensitive that could be construed as a racial issue."

The challenge, he said, "became how we could show that Rainier Valley was the most effective route."

Skolnik, an architect who now runs his own consulting firm in Seattle, said no one ever told him explicitly to skew the analysis in Rainier Valley's favor. But the need for technical information to support Rainier Valley came up in management meetings where he was present, he said.

"They didn't have to say anything," Skolnik recalled. "Anyone who attended those (management and Seattle City Council) meetings knew what had to happen if we wanted the council's support."

White and project manager David Kalberer said there was never any effort made to deliberately distort the options to make the valley look better.

But the options were distorted, and the result was the valley began to look more attractive, especially after a new study increased the cost of the Duwamish option from $398 million to $530 million in 1992.

The problem, Skolnik said, is that the new analysis served only to make the Duwamish more expensive without any real reason for doing so.

Kalberer told an expert review panel in 1992 that the increase in cost was due to Boeing's desire to keep three easements that allowed it to move planes across East Marginal Way South to Boeing Field.

Kalberer said recently he had no reason to doubt the company's senior executives when they told him in early discussions they wanted to keep the easements, so he ordered transit planners to design around the problem. The only way around the easements, the planners concluded, was to tunnel under the property for 2-1/2 miles.

But other key players, including Boeing officials and former Mayor Rice, say the easements were never a big deal because the City Council had already made its preference for Rainier Valley known.

Boeing spokesman John Dern said there were only preliminary discussions with transit officials over a "hypothetical" possibility — not concrete plans — that rail would affect the company's easements. Had the planners indicated they were serious about the route, Dern said, the company would have been willing to negotiate.

White agreed that the discussions were preliminary and that no one pushed the company to negotiate. Still, he said, planners were told to make a "simplifying assumption" and design the route as if the Boeing easements were an intractable problem.

With the proposed tunnel, transit planners could show for the first time that Rainier Valley might be cheaper than Duwamish: $530 million for the Duwamish in 1991 dollars, vs. $400 million to $710 million for Rainier Valley, depending on how much tunneling was done there.

Although it was only a simplifying assumption, the scenario was treated as a hard fact, and study after study showed the need for the tunnel if the route were going along the Duwamish. It also was presented as fact to the elected officials picking the routes.

In May 1992, Metro staffer Chris Deffebach was asked by a Snohomish County official whether it was possible to work with Boeing to reach a solution. "The work done by staff to date shows no easy options," she replied.

Deffebach, who now lives in Portland, said in a recent interview that she had only a vague recollection of the project's details, and almost none about the easement problem. She also said she had no memory of the meeting, even after the minutes were read to her.

In October 1992, Kalberer told a panel of experts charged with reviewing the project that Boeing officials were "adamant about keeping their ability to move aircraft from their manufacturing facility across East Marginal Way several times a day," according to minutes of the meeting.

Kalberer, who now works as regional transportation manager for the Port of Seattle, said he had no recollection of the meeting, even after the minutes were read to him. But he said it reflected his sense of where the company stood on the issue.

In narrowing the cost differences between the two options, the tunnel on the Duwamish route made it easier for Seattle officials to sell the Rainier Valley plan to neighboring cities.

A newspaper article at the time noted: "City Council members pointed out that the county and suburban representatives could balk at the city's choices because of the cost. But in recent months, studies have shown the routes to be equally expensive, making the city's position stronger."

Opposition in Rainier Valley

Ironically, the project that was once a rallying cry for community groups that wanted light rail in Rainier Valley is now the subject of a federal lawsuit that alleges the region's elected officials are discriminating against the people who live there by building the rail line on a major surface street.

The rail route for Martin Luther King Jr. Way South was identified as street level in May 1998 when the Sound Transit board chose route and station alternatives to be examined in the draft environmental-impact statement. In November 1999, the street-level route became the board's preferred alternative.

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard July 30 in U.S. District Court. For now, a temporary court order prevents Sound Transit from acquiring property or building in Rainier Valley.

Once again, there are overtones of racial and economic justice in the debate, as those opposed to the current plan point to the city's willingness to downgrade plans for the valley while planning to spend hundreds of millions tunneling under Capitol Hill.

"Sound Transit was talking about underground or aerial routes everywhere (in the valley)," said Mickey Gendler, attorney for Save Our Valley, the community coalition that brought the suit. But the plans changed once people in Rainier Valley signed onto it. "Thereafter, Sound Transit talked about surface routes everywhere.

"In every other area, they've shown a willingness to increase the cost of the project," Gendler said.

Noland says she still believes the valley would benefit from light rail, particularly if it's underground. Although the valley may still get some form of rail, an underground route seems a remote possibility.

Sound Transit's governing board in June ordered the agency's staff to study whether they can start with a smaller line from South Royal Brougham Way or the downtown bus tunnel's Convention Place Station to South 200th Street. The staff's findings are due back in September, when the board is expected to make a final decision.

"My hope is that we do get some kind of transit system," Noland said, "and if we have to rethink it, I would hate to see this dropped and us do nothing for 20 years. That's what would be the greatest tragedy of all."

Susan Kelleher can be reached at 206-464-2508 or at skelleher@seattletimes.com.

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