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Today's Sound Transit board meeting will play host to a simmering feud over how to expand light rail from the Angle Lake station in SeaTac (currently under construction) south to Federal Way. The issue causing all the strife? Whether to align a proposed Federal Way extension along I-5 or the adjacent State Route 99 (SR99) roadway to the west.

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The tussle features a batch of elected officials from Southwest King County on the one side, who support an I-5 alignment (they fear the immediate impacts of light rail construction on their communities and businesses), and transit greens who favor the SR99 alignment for its potential to generate transit-oriented development—or new neighborhoods, as Futurewise policy director Bryce Yadon puts it. Both sides will present at today's Sound Transit board meeting.

The Federal Way extension is an add-on to the Sound Transit 2 plan (approved by the voters in 2008) to expand light rail by 2023 north to Lynnwood, east through Bellevue to Microsoft, and, south, where today's battle comes in, just shy of Federal Way with the money to plan a southern extension to Federal Way. Sound Transit is in the process of hashing out the details to have a “shovel ready” plan prepared so they can act as soon as funding from the state legislature is secured. The draft environmental impact statement identifying the various routes was released last April and public input is being gathered right now.

Essentially the two basic proposals (I-5 or SR99 alignments) boil down to this: The I-5 alignment would snake east from the Angle Lake station to hug the interstate, stopping at an elevated Kent/Des Moines station and a grade-level Starlake station before ending at the Federal Way transit center. The SR99 alternative would run along the thoroughfare to the west (either elevated in the middle of SR99 or in trenches through adjacent commercial and residential properties), stopping at additional stations at South 216th and 260th Streets (the Starlake station would be shifted west to 272nd Street in Redondo).

The competing options are creating tension between the suburbs and Seattle.

“Sound Transit should not be used as a methodology to force Seattle-esque land use decisions on the suburbs. That's BS,” Des Moines mayor Dave Kaplan told PubliCola yesterday. “From our standpoint, we wind up with impacts and very little benefit [with the SR99 alignment].”

Other heads of cities share Kaplan's sentiments. Back in May, Kaplan and his fellow suburban mayors from Kent, SeaTac, and Federal Way sent a letter to the Sound Transit board, citing concerns that an SR99 alignment and the accompanying construction and land acquisitions would displace both residents and businesses and stifle revenue for the latter. The city councils of all four cities have also passed resolutions supporting the I-5 alignment.

“Sometimes people will very cynically dismiss impacts on today's businesses and properties as 'we need to be thinking 100 years from now,'" Des Moines area King County Council member and ST board member Dave Upthegrove says. "And so the attitude is sort of 'screw the people who are there now.' While I agree we need to be balancing future generations needs, I think impacts to people today are real. These are real families, real jobs.”

Sound Transit’s draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) estimates that the SR99 alignment would displace 104 business and acquire 31 acres of commercial property. Comparatively an I-5 alignment would displace 29 businesses and only buy up 13 acres of commercial land. And the I-5 alignment would actually displace more residents, though, according to the DEIS: 285 units versus 36 units. Meanwhile, the I-5 alignment is estimated to cost less, projected at $1.4 billion compared to the $1.7 billion SR99 price tag.

“We have a limited amount of commercially zoned land in Des Moines, and in order for the city to financially survive in the long term, we have to [economically] maximize what happens on that property,” Kaplan said.

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A green/social justice alliance has come together to support the competing SR99 option, starring smart-growth nonprofit Futurewise and immigrant rights group OneAmerica. Futurewise recently submitted comments on the DEIS to Sound Transit, arguing that the SR99 alignment would create more housing stock (the DEIS says the SR99 creates 119 acres of potential land for transit-oriented development versus just 76 in the I-5 option.) And more housing stock anchored around public transit would reduce vehicle emissions, the greens argue. (The SR99 option bests the I-5 option ridership by 1,000 riders a day, 26,500 to 25,500.) Futurewise makes a point of contrasting that with the health ramifications of any kind of development along I-5 citing higher asthma rates per King County Public Health in southwest King County cities and an EPA health-outcomes study on development along high-traffic-volume highways. (Upthegrove notes that SR99 is no Garden of Eden either: "SR99 is a heavily traveled urban corridor. You have vehicles stopping and starting, which often can be worse for the population.")

Futurewise says it is looking at the issue both in the long term and regionally. “If you look at each city and how much space is available, it limits how you look at the entire region and the corridor,” Bryce Yadon, state policy director for Futurewise, said in response to the concerns of local leaders like Kaplan. Yadon says wetlands along I-5 severely limit its transit-oriented development potential. “This isn't just [about] moving people from Des Moines or Federal Way or any other city to downtown Seattle, this is also something that creates neighborhoods.”

Like Futurewise, Seattle City Council and Sound Transit Board member Mike O’Brien looks at the issue in the long term. “We want to think holistically here. It would be shame to save a few dollars today at the cost of huge benefits decades from now,” said O’Brien.

“What I see from public comment and places like community-based organizations and the Highline Community College is that they would all like to see it on SR99. So there's a disconnect between what I'm hearing from the constituents in the community and what I'm hearing from the elected officials who represent those constituents,” O’Brien added.

Sound Transit recently adopted transit-oriented development (TOD) as a factor to be considered in implementing transportation projects. Kaplan, however, says the city has already been working on and meeting its obligations in King County’s own growth management plan by upzoning and making pedestrian and transit-friendly street improvements.

Upthegrove says that while both alignments have their downsides, the combination of the higher projected cost (considering the current lack of funding and numerous other ST2 expansion projects) of the SR routes and staunch local opposition has him leaning toward the I-5 alignment.

“It becomes a tradeoff. Is the extra TOD you get by having one of these stations a little further away [from I-5] worth the extra money compared to what else can we get in the [light rail] system for that investment?” said Upthegrove. “Given the regional demand to expand the system I think the [Sound Transit] board is likely to prioritize system expansion [over more stations and TOD along SR99].”

Kaplan was a bit more blunt: "Who says you have to have TOD at every station
location? That's a decision for local governments to decide where [TOD] will occur."

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