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Tuesday, July 17, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Light-rail suit cut down: Judge tosses out most claims made by Rainier Valley group

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A federal judge yesterday threw out most of Save Our Valley's lawsuit challenging Sound Transit's decision to build a light-rail line on the surface through Rainier Valley instead of tunneling.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein also lifted an injunction that had prohibited Sound Transit from contacting Rainier Valley residents about purchasing property for the light-rail line.

But Rothstein left the issue of whether Sound Transit intentionally discriminated against Rainier Valley, which has a high proportion of minority and low-income residents, for trial. The trial, which had been set for later this month, was moved to Oct. 5.

The ruling was good news for the beleaguered transit agency, but Sound Transit officials were guarded in their reaction.

"I'm delighted. However, we still have litigation going and we have to prepare for that trial," said Dave Earling, chairman of Sound Transit's board of directors.

The agency is focusing its planning efforts on building a light-rail line from downtown Seattle through Rainier Valley to South 200th Street in South King County.

Sound Transit originally planned to build a 21-mile system from the city of SeaTac to the University District by 2006 but scrapped that approach because budget increases raised the cost more than 50 percent.

Save Our Valley, which has actively opposed the light-rail project, filed its lawsuit last year hoping to block construction of a rail line down the center of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

Mickey Gendler, lead counsel for the Save Our Valley lawsuit, said the group is considering its next step. "Going to trial is definitely an option, but not a certainty," he said. "We have to evaluate where we stand."

The only issue Rothstein left in place is whether Sound Transit intentionally discriminated against Rainier Valley by treating that community differently from other communities.

Save Our Valley contends that more affluent communities such as Eastlake were able to persuade Sound Transit not to build surface light rail through their neighborhoods.

"We do believe there is significant evidence that Sound Transit and its board consistently treated this community differently ... for the reason that this community doesn't have political clout," Gendler said. "The white communities sneeze and Sound Transit catches the flu."

However, he said intent is difficult to prove "especially when you are dealing with the collective intent of government."

Sound Transit denies any discrimination in its treatment of Rainier Valley residents.

Rothstein removed several issues from the lawsuit:

• Fair housing: Save Our Valley argued the light-rail project is unfair because most of the homes that would be taken in the Rainier Valley are owned by racial and ethnic minorities, Gendler said. Rothstein ruled the federal Fair Housing Act does not apply to transportation projects.

• National Environmental Policy Act: The group contended that Sound Transit did not adequately consider impacts to Rainier Valley such as safety issues and disruption to the community, Gendler said. Rothstein said those issues received adequate attention.

Rothstein also lifted the injunction against Sound Transit purchasing land for the light-rail project in the community, but Ric Ilgenfritz, a spokesman for the agency, said Sound Transit has no immediate plans to start talking with Rainier Valley residents about buying property.

Sound Transit is struggling to decide what light-rail system it can afford to build. It is not expected to reach a decision until September.

Andrew Garber can be reached at 206-464-2595 or agarber@seattletimes.com.

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