Q&A: What Tukwila vote means to Sound Transit
Seattle Times staff reporter
Here's a look at the ramifications of Monday night's council vote.
Q: Just what did the Tukwila council turn down?
A: A 23-page "memorandum of agreement" on the proposed route that Sound Transit staff members had negotiated with Tukwila's mayor and staff members. It outlined the process Tukwila and Sound Transit were to follow as the regional transit agency seeks city permits to build the light-rail line through Tukwila. Among other things, it called for expedited city-permit processing and for Sound Transit to pay Tukwila $240,000.
Q: Why was this agreement important?
A: Because the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has asked Sound Transit to get it approved before applying for sorely needed federal money to build the light-rail line. Last month, the Sound Transit staff members told the agency's board that the agreement was "required" and "necessary" for the grant application to go forward.
Q: So does this means Sound Transit won't get federal funds? Does this mean light rail is dead?
A: Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, a member of the Sound Transit board, said Tukwila's decision could potentially kill the project. But that's far from a sure thing.
FTA Regional Administrator Rick Krochalis says his agency would have preferred that Sound Transit and Tukwila get the deal done. But he says he isn't closing the door on Sound Transit yet.
Krochalis plans to meet today with Sound Transit to discuss the implications of the Tukwila vote. The next big hurdle for Sound Transit is FTA approval to begin final design work on the line. Krochalis says he should make a recommendation to officials in Washington, D.C., within the next week.
Q: How much federal money is Sound Transit seeking?
A: It wants $500 million, nearly one-quarter of the budget for the 14-mile project. Congress already has appropriated $91 million of that, but $50 million was placed on hold last year after Sound Transit ran into serious budget and schedule problems that forced it to scale back the project.
Q: Could Sound Transit build its light-rail line without federal money?
A: It would be very difficult. The agency is counting on federal help.
Q: The FTA may make recommendations, but Sound Transit won't get the money unless Congress approves. How is the Tukwila vote playing on Capitol Hill?
A: Congressional sources say it's too soon to say what effect it will have. But "it's not a positive development for the project," one said yesterday.
Q: Why did the Tukwila City Council reject the agreement?
A: It's a long story.
Sound Transit first ran into trouble with Tukwila in 1999, when it said it wanted to build the light-rail line through the city down the median of Highway 99.
City officials said that route would divide the community and disrupt long-held plans to redevelop the corridor. They pushed for a route that would serve Southcenter, Tukwila's commercial hub, but Sound Transit said that was too expensive and would add several minutes to trips from downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (At the time Sound Transit planned to build a 21-mile line from the University District to SeaTac.)
Tukwila officials hinted that Sound Transit could have a hard time getting city permits. Relations between the city and the agency couldn't have gotten much worse.
Then Tukwila suggested a compromise: a so-called Tukwila Freeway Route along the west side of Interstate 5 and north side of Highway 518. When the Sound Transit board accepted the compromise and adopted the route last year, Tukwila Mayor Steve Mullet hailed it as a major milestone, a sign that relations between the city and Sound Transit were improving.
As the two sides worked on the memorandum of agreement formalizing the freeway route, Mullet assured Sound Transit repeatedly in writing that it had the City Council's support.
But when they rejected the agreement Monday, council members said that wasn't so and that they still wanted light rail to go to Southcenter.
Q: What happened? Did the council members change their minds? Did Mullet miscalculate?
A: Mullet says he was blindsided and had no idea the council might reject the route until three weeks ago. Councilman David Fenton, who voted against Sound Transit, says the council didn't see the agreement until then. "There just was a major breakdown of communication."
Q: What does Sound Transit say?
A: That it's the victim here. "This is a case where we feel we did everything that was asked of us, by the city and by the FTA, and we've gotten burned," says Ric Ilgenfritz, the agency's communications director.
Q: Why can't Sound Transit just switch to the Southcenter route now?
A: Ilgenfritz says the agency still doesn't have the money. Even if it did, he says, required studies and federal review would delay the project at least six months. The agency still wants to break ground later this year.
Q: Several Tukwila members said they don't think Sound Transit's light-rail project should be built at all and call it a waste of money that won't do anything for the region's transportation problems.
Does that kind of antagonism suggest that, even if Sound Transit does get federal money, Tukwila still could kill the project by denying it the permits it needs?
A: Not necessarily.
There's a section in the state Growth Management Act that bars cities from blocking "essential public facilities" such as sewage-treatment plants and airports that no community wants, even though they are considered vital to the region.
The legal definition of "essential public facility" includes Sound Transit's light-rail line. The Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board, which interprets the growth law, already has ruled that Tukwila "has a duty not to preclude the light-rail alignment selected by Sound Transit."
If Tukwila puts up roadblocks, it could find itself before the hearings board or in court.
Seattle Times Washington, D.C., bureau reporter Kevin Galvin contributed to this report. Eric Pryne can be reached at 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org.