The tracks of their fears

Sound Transit jettisons Northgate, Southcenter, and North Capitol Hill, and passes a cautious rail plan. Maybe we don't have to give up so much...

DID ANYONE ELSE at the big light-rail showdown get the same shiver of d骠 vu all over again? Once again, the region's political powers were gathering in Plymouth Congregational Church, the hall they rent when the usual chambers are too small to hold everyone. Once again, they were taking a pivotal vote on how to spend a billion or two of the public's dollars on a megaproject that was supposed to help save the region from looming unlivability. Once again, it was a project that would tie the various regional players together in groundbreaking cooperation—and at the same reveal just how deep their rifts and rivalries ran. And once again, the buy-off—the sweetener, the vigorish, the fig leaf—that was supposed to make the whole deal palatable ran to exactly $50 million.

In 1986, it was the Metro Council—two dozen reps from Seattle, King County, and the county's other cities and suburbs—deciding where to build a huge new sewage plant (the plant that's now built and already proving inadequate for this region's raging growth). Metro staff, suburban politicians, and cold numbers all urged building it on the site of the old, outdated plant at West Point. But Seattle's Mayor Charles Royer took up a crusade to spend more, build the plant in the Duwamish industrial belt, and restore West Point's magnificent beach and surrounding Discovery Park. But, surprise, Metro's non-Seattle majority had scant interest in spending hundreds of millions to save a Seattle beach. A thrifty-minded Seattle City Council member named Norm Rice concocted a compromise: a $50 million "mitigation fund" to buy and protect shoreline elsewhere to atone for dumping yet again on West Point.

FLASH FORWARD: February 25, 1999. The boundaries, and the complexities, of regional cooperation have expanded. The board of Sound Transit, the erstwhile Regional Transit Authority—14 city and county reps from King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties—has gathered to take its first big vote. It will endorse a route and set of stations for the long-awaited light-rail line from northeast Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport, the priciest project local government has ever undertaken hereabouts. This time, however, Seattle's mayor isn't making himself a local hero by coming out swinging for the costlier option that will preserve the local landscape. Mayor Paul Schell votes along with every other board member to run tracks down the middle of Martin Luther King Way, rather than spending $400 million more (by official estimate) to dig a tunnel under the Rainier Valley, as a large and loud contingent of residents urge. But Schell and King County Executive Ron Sims have offered a last-minute sweetener, a "Transit Oriented Community Development Fund" for the Valley, comprising exactly . . . $50 million.

It's still the Rainier Valley showdown that gloms most of the public attention. The salt of the Valley is out in force, waving placards outside Plymouth Congregational and taking the mike inside to protest a surface rail line that, until last year, everyone in that district seemed to want. Save Our Valley, the group fighting for a tunnel route, may yet slow, though not derail, Sound Transit's whole project, should SOV manage to discredit its environmental documents in the lawsuit it vows to file. And the group may be sadly disappointed in the outcome of Schell and Sims' promised $50 million—which, as approved by the Sound Transit Board, is suspiciously soft money.

The motion passed merely says that "Sound Transit shall establish" the development fund; it is not an actual funding bill. And it suggests that the mitigation burden will fall at least partly on local governments, by declaring that "Seattle and King County are encouraged to provide or secure matching funds for the investments." One rumor going around the board has it that King County will sneak an under-the-table subsidy for the mitigation fund, by letting Sound Transit underpay when it buys the downtown transit tunnel from the county.

BUT THE TUNNEL FIGHT is a ghostly sideshow to more internally divisive issues, and more ominous threats to the light-rail scheme. The Valley vote was a foregone conclusion, since even Sound Transit's five Seattle-residing board members had already declared they'd join in what proved a unanimous vote against the tunnel. But other issues to the north and south presented tougher issues, and may yet threaten the completion of a full light-rail line more than the currently flaring tunnel fight.

To the south is Southcenter, the sprawl-mall breadbasket of Tukwila, which fought valiantly to get the rail line to detour there on the way to Sea-Tac. Tukwila doesn't have a rep on the Sound Transit board, but Sims and the three County Council members on the board joined in urging that the Southcenter option be kept alive, "if additional funding can be secured." But Pierce and Snohomish reps, loathe to leave the door open to more spending in King County, and to add six minutes to the airport ride, killed the Southcenter option.

To the north are Northgate and the Roosevelt district. All parties agree that the current budget for this first phase of what's to be a much more extensive light-rail system wouldn't allow for taking the line past the U District. But Cynthia Sullivan, the King County Council member representing northeast Seattle, insists she really thought she had a shot at keeping the Northgate option open should more funds appear. Her proposed amendment would have designated an alignment from the U District to Northgate (conveniently, the costlier tunnel route favored by her constituents) and continued preliminary engineering work, so that the line could be built in Phase I if more funds should appear. The four other Seattleites all voted with Sullivan to keep the Northgate line on the table. But the nine Snohomish, Pierce, and suburban reps all rallied against it. They argued that it was "too soon" to commit to a route without money assured, and that "we're getting very overextended." Subtext: There goes Seattle getting greedy again.

Sullivan and fellow County Council member Greg Nickels argue that this view is wastefully short-sighted. First, there's the practical and symbolic importance of the Northgate line, the crucial first step in a route north to Snohomish. And second, it—and/or other sensible additions, such as a second Capitol Hill station at Aloha Street, which the board also rejected—just might be more financially feasible than it dares to think.

The trouble, as Nickels sees it, lies in the torturous history of RTA/Sound Transit funding: The original 1995 plan called for approximately equal state, federal, and local contributions. But the 1996 Republican Legislature, feeling its Gingrichian oats, warned the transit board not to even talk of state funding, and refused to consider waiving sales tax on its construction expenditures. Call it wisdom, cowardice, or lack of imagination, but Sound Transit has since declined to go back and seek even this indirect subsidy—which the Legislature has gladly granted to the football and baseball stadiums, the convention center, and privatized Tacoma Narrows Bridge, none of which has as good a claim on the public interest.

The result? "There's $300 million sitting on the table in sales-tax revenue," laments Sullivan. And, as Nickels notes, Olympia's political landscape has changed since Rep. Karen Schmidt chaired the House Transportation Committee and refused to move the sales-tax relief measure. Now, under the House's bipartisan cohabitation, Schmidt's committee has a Democratic co-chair, Tacoma's Ruth Fisher—who, whaddaya know, wrote the original legislation establishing the RTA, and would be more sympathetic to waiving its sales tax.

"We'd consider it," Fisher says discreetly.

Frank Chopp, the House's Democratic co-speaker, warns transit boosters no to get their hopes up too high, or too soon: "With Referendum 49 stealing a lot of the money for [highway] transportation, it's not a good time. Next year might be better. I told them I hoped we might [grant an exemption] for schools and then look at the RTA."

And so, even as it celebrates this first grand milestone, Sound Transit may have unnecessarily narrowed its horizons, and its prospects of building a real transit system instead of a single, unfinished rail line. Sic transit regional cooperation.

Related Links: Sound Transit.

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