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Thursday, March 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rail work clogs the way on MLK

Seattle Times staff reporter

Keeping merchants afloat


The $50 million Rainier Valley Community Development Fund will ease the strain of Sound Transit's light-rail construction and encourage new development. To date, $6.7 million in grants and loans have been awarded. In the future, money will go toward business renovations, and to build low-cost housing.

Recipients: About 130 businesses have received grants or loans, mostly to cover lost income or relocation expenses.

Locations: There were 284 businesses along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South before the project. As of December, 58 got financial assistance to relocate (29 stayed in Rainier Valley). An additional 11 moved away or closed.

Money: A total of $3.08 million has been given to 110 businesses, an average of about $28,000, to make up for documented losses through March 8. An additional $3.6 million in grants and loans went for other relief, mostly to help merchants survive a move.

Source: Rainier Valley Community Development Fund data

Sound Transit


Start of construction: November 2003

The route: A 16-mile line from Westlake Center to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is scheduled to open in 2009.

Cost: $2.7 billion

Light-rail construction in the Rainier Valley is leaving its marks on Dzung Luong, owner of Minh's Restaurant.

Many lunchtime customers from Boeing, eight minutes away, stopped coming when block after block of trenching machines and barricades stretched the trip to half an hour.

Luong lost half her income. She laid off an assistant cook and took over the job herself. A few weeks ago, as she tossed noodles in a large pan, drops of hot oil splattered onto her left arm, leaving little scars.

"We are just learning," Luong said.

Two years after light rail's groundbreaking, many businesses are struggling along a 4 ½-mile commercial strip of Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, the area most disrupted by Sound Transit's $2.7 billion light-rail project from downtown to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Construction has been so difficult that the valley section won't be done until perhaps May 2007 — nearly a year longer than contractors first said.

There have been numerous mistakes and surprises as workers tore open the old street to rebuild the underground utilities.

Western Donuts lost power three times without warning. Viet-Wah Superfoods had to throw away meat after an unexpected outage. A Jones Barbeque outlet has lost customers who won't drive over bumpy patches of temporary pavement. King Plaza, a cluster of immigrant-run shops including Minh's Restaurant, was blocked during Seafair and Lunar New Year.

Even the blood business has taken a hit, when a longer bus ride discouraged some people from stopping to have their plasma drawn at Biomat USA.

Eventually, train riders are supposed to bring prosperity. For now, Sound Transit has tried to cushion the losses by giving $6.7 million in relief payments to merchants.

Minh's is a block from the future Othello Street station, where apartments, townhouses and single-family homes are also being built to replace a sprawling public-housing project.

"After they finish, it will really help this location," Luong said. She's hoping to survive that long.

Route chosen in '90s

The Rainier Valley route was chosen in the early 1990s by City Council members who wanted to revive a run-down corner of Seattle — instead of building a faster, cheaper line through industrial areas directly to the airport.

For a century, the valley has been a place where people of little means have created their homes and businesses. Early immigrants from Italy, Norway and Japan were followed by wartime workers, followed by Vietnamese, Hmong and East Africans. The street known as Empire Way was renamed for King to recognize the valley's large African-American population and its overall diversity.

Politicians said the valley deserves light-rail service after decades of neglect. But some residents claimed discrimination, because tracks are being laid at street level, instead of the less-intrusive tunnel Sound Transit proposed for more affluent areas north of downtown. Officials say it's too difficult and expensive to run trains up and down north-end hills.

With history in mind, Sound Transit chose its winning bidder, RCI-Herzog, in part, because of its detailed pledge to work fast and show extreme sensitivity.

To finish sooner, transit officials decided to carve open the entire corridor at once for utility work, instead of proceeding one section at a time. What they found were problems, adding $12 million to the $114 million for the main valley construction contract.

Contaminated soil, mainly from gasoline spills, was found at 70 sites, instead of the expected 19.

The city has cited RCI-Herzog eight times for minor traffic-control problems. About 225 damage claims have been filed against Sound Transit, mostly by businesses, motorists and pedestrians. This winter, builders had to tear down and rebuild a short concrete wall that was 8 inches out of alignment. A sewer backup Jan. 29 flooded 20 homes.

Equipment has hit utility lines 135 times, in some cases because old pipes didn't appear on maps, said Ahmad Fazel, Sound Transit's light-rail director. In other cases, he said, workers weren't cautious enough in using equipment near utility lines.

"Those added some impact, but the final job will be of the highest quality," he said.

Delays in the valley will not affect Sound Transit's plan to open the entire 16-mile line in 2009.

During one of many valley tours to boost morale, Mayor Greg Nickels recalled the plight of King Plaza last year, when entrances were expected to be blocked for two weeks. That stretched another two weeks, then another, he said.

"On a day-to-day basis, being down here, seeing construction and empty tables has got to be demoralizing," he said after finishing a bowl of pho at Minh's. "You see the hassle, but you don't see the benefits."

Joni Earl, Sound Transit chief executive officer, said the agency recently rejected the latest work schedule that called for having most of this portion of the project completed by May 2007, and told RCI-Herzog to revise it. The job might take longer, but people would get a more reliable idea of when heavy machinery will show up, transit staffers said.

RCI-Herzog's deputy project director, Don Divers, said that, considering the enormous scale of the underground utility work, with up to 19 crews at work at any one time, "I think we're doing an excellent job."

Compensation fund

Anticipating some distress, Sound Transit, the city and King County Metro created a $50 million Rainier Valley Community Development Fund to distribute federal money.

So far, 110 businesses have received compensation for lost income. The grant limits are $30,000 to replace lost income, or $50,000 for those who relocate or face unusual hardships.

"Fifty-three businesses have maxed out," said fund director Jaime Garcia. "Are they ready to handle another summer of disruption? I hope so. I hope they've got some money squirreled away to get through it. Then, things are going to get better."

The fund is helping some businesses not just to endure, but thrive.

David Silver's dental office and Clayton VW Repair each got new buildings with the fund's help when theirs were demolished, and owners report business is rebounding.

Sound Transit is also offering publicity and marketing advice. An early brochure for King Plaza tried to defuse the frustrations over traffic: "Businesses in mirror are closer than they appear." Garcia objected to the rear-view picture of someone fleeing the valley.

The new image, on a billboard near Interstate 5, is "The World at Your Doorstep," alongside a mosaic of nine photographs of food.

The next big disruption will be the paving of the street in concrete, which Sound Transit hopes will be completed this year. Track installation will go on until mid-2007.

Nickels predicts that once people see newly paved streets and streetlights in a few months, they'll get a psychological lift.

Meanwhile, Minh's has reached its $30,000 limit on relief money. To encourage repeat customers, Luong began serving free cream puffs with lunch. She can't predict whether her business will make it through the construction.

"Every day, we come here to work and we hope we're doing better and better," she said. A new menu is in the making. When a few sunbreaks arrived last week, she sensed a little surge at lunchtime.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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