Sound Transit's hopes revived; Tukwila's approval 'not required'
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sound Transit's embattled light-rail line apparently has survived the potentially fatal setback it suffered in Tukwila earlier this month.
Rick Krochalis, the regional head of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), said yesterday he plans to forward Sound Transit's application for badly needed federal money to his agency's headquarters soon — despite the Tukwila City Council's rejection of a proposed agreement with Sound Transit on the project's route through that city.
The FTA had earlier deemed intergovernmental agreements "critical" to the project's success, and it told Sound Transit to nail down the pact with Tukwila in part because of their history of testy relations.
When the city rejected the plan June 17, one Sound Transit board member warned that the city's decision could kill light rail by denying the project federal funds.
But Krochalis said yesterday his agency had recently reconsidered Tukwila's approval, calling it "desirable, but not required" for Sound Transit's grant application to proceed, he said.
Agency officials in Washington, D.C., will make the final recommendation to Congress on whether Sound Transit gets the money. But Krochalis said the Tukwila vote doesn't appear to be a showstopper.
Sound Transit officials had been trying to convince the FTA that an agreement with Tukwila wasn't really needed. Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit's chief communications officer, welcomed Krochalis' words.
"This is good news for the commuters around the region," he said. "It signifies there are other ways to deal with the issues in Tukwila. And it bodes well for us as we go through the federal grant process."
But John Niles of Sane Transit, the anti-light-rail coalition, said the regional FTA office "has shown before that they are cheerleaders for Sound Transit's central Link light rail, no matter where it goes, what it costs, how much damage it does or how long it takes to build," he said. "What's new this time is that they don't care what elected representatives of the people along the route decide about the project."
Federal officials in Washington, D.C., will pay more heed to the Tukwila vote than their Northwest counterparts, Niles predicted.
Tukwila City Council President Richard Simpson, who voted against the agreement, said Krochalis' comments showed a lack of respect for the city. "It doesn't make us feel very important out here at all," he said. "We're the ones they can just push aside and keep on going."
Break ground this year
Sound Transit's proposed 14-mile light-rail line would run from downtown Seattle to South 154th Street in Tukwila, a mile from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The agency is seeking a commitment from the federal government for $500 million for the $2.1 billion project.
It hopes to break ground later this year.
Tukwila city officials opposed the first proposed route through their city, down Highway 99, pushing instead for a route serving Southcenter, the city's commercial hub.
Sound Transit said that was too expensive. But last year, after consulting with Tukwila, it adopted a new, compromise "Tukwila Freeway Route" through the city, just west of Interstate 5 and north of Highway 518.
Tukwila Mayor Steve Mullet, top city staffers and Sound Transit officials negotiated a "memorandum of agreement" on that route earlier this year that called for expedited city processing of light-rail permit applications.
When the council rejected the deal by a 5-2 vote, both Mullet and Sound Transit said they had been blindsided.
Council members said they still wanted light rail to go Southcenter. Some voiced opposition to the entire light-rail project.
City 'has a duty' to comply
Krochalis, who became the FTA's regional administrator just last month, said yesterday that he had concluded the rejected agreement probably wasn't needed after all because Tukwila can't legally deny permits for the light-rail line.
He pointed to the state Growth Management Act, which designates the project an "essential public facility" that local governments can't block; and to a 1999 state hearings-board ruling that Tukwila "has a duty not to preclude the light-rail alignment selected by Sound Transit."
Krochalis also said Tukwila participated in the process Sound Transit followed in selecting the freeway route, and that the city was consistent in its support for that route until the council vote. It was "a compromise that everyone had agreed upon," he said.
The FTA still would like Sound Transit to work cooperatively with Tukwila, Krochalis said.
But in a presentation to the state Transportation Commission yesterday, Vernon Stoner, Sound Transit's deputy executive director, said that, if necessary, the agency would use the light-rail project's special status under the Growth Management Act to force Tukwila to grant permits.
Richard Borkowski, president of the pro-rail group People for Modern Transit, said Krochalis' comments were a boost for Sound Transit. But he urged the agency to build a stub off the Tukwila Freeway Route as a first step toward extending light rail to Southcenter later.
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or firstname.lastname@example.org.