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Environmental study sought for Federal Way light rail

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Feb. 6, 2012 at 4:10 pm |
February 6, 2012 5:16 pm

There’s still no money available to bring light rail to Federal Way, but Democratic state Sen. Tracey Eide and Republican King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer say Sound Transit should spend what it does have on a planning process that will position it for the day when there is money.

The goal is federal approval of a route to Federal Way. Sound Transit says having a plan will help it compete for federal and state grants and other money that could bring that day closer.

A proposal von Reichbauer unveiled today and will make to the rest of the Sound Transit board would add $24 million to the agency’s 2012 budget for environmental study that now stands at $17.5 million, he said.

The current budget includes funding for study of a light rail extension from South 200th Street — the planned 2016 terminus — south into the Kent-Des Moines area. It’s meant to result in an environmental impact study and federal sign-off. The proposal would do the same for a route that goes all the way to the transit center in central Federal Way.

That’s farther than envisioned by the 2008 ballot measure. Voters approved a tax package intended to bring light rail to South 272nd Street, but that revenue has dried up in the economic downturn.

In a news release, Eide and Von Reichbauer say say it would “establish a shovel-ready plan for extending light-rail to Federal Way.”

Federal Way Mayor Skip Priest is taking a different tack as part of a tussle with Sound Transit. He’s pursuing legislation to reshape the transit agency. But those ideas had zero support from Eide and others who say Federal Way advocates should be working with the agency’s leaders, and the bills died last week.

UPDATE 5:15 p.m.: Sound Transit says if the board approves von Reichbauer’s proposal, environmental study and route selection would start mid-year and finish in four to five years.

Here’s their release:

Von Reichbauer announces proposal to immediately move forward with Federal Way light rail planning

Sen. Tracey Eide calls for strong local partnership to extend light rail service

State Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, joined King County Council Member Pete von Reitchbauer and two other members of the Sound Transit Board today to support a proposal to establish a shovel-ready plan for extending light rail to Federal Way.

“Connecting South King County’s largest population and employment center to the regional light rail system is not only critical to local residents but to the entire region and state,” said von Reichbauer. “Sound Transit has never stopped working to find a way to get light rail to Federal Way. This proposal calls for acting on our commitment by moving forward immediately with the engineering and environmental review needed to get the project shovel-ready. This would include the Sound Transit Board making a final alignment decision.  While we develop a specific route and cost estimate we will work with any and all partners to meet the challenge of funding construction.”

At a news conference today von Reichbauer announced he is submitting a proposed amendment to the Sound Transit Board’s 2012 Budget that will move forward with conceptual design and environmental review not only for the South 272nd Street light rail extension regional voters approved in 2008, but all the way to the Federal Way Transit Center area. While significant hurdles remain for establishing funding to complete the voter-approved plan, Sound Transit Board Chair Pat McCarthy and member Dow Constantine voiced support for von Reichbauer’s proposal to think big and not underestimate the power of forging strong partnerships.

“This is a huge step forward to bringing light rail to Federal Way and I’m very excited about this announcement,” said Eide. “For months I’ve been working with Joni Earl, Council Member von Reichbauer and the Sound Transit Board to accelerate the process of bring light rail to Federal Way. The City of Federal Way needs to be a committed partner in identifying a light rail route and seeking funding, including potential partnerships at the state and federal levels.”

“My priority continues to be finding a viable solution to meet Federal Way’s transportation needs. This proposal keeps us moving forward while we all work together to address the funding gap, and it assures the people of South King County that Sound Transit continues to be committed to delivering light rail as promised,” Eide said.

Von Reichbauer’s proposal to fully fund environmental review process includes an intensive process to involve residents of Federal Way and throughout South King County in shaping the extension.

The agency’s adopted 2012 budget includes funding for a full environmental process, culminating in a final environmental impact statement and record of decision, between South 200th Street and Kent/DesMoines, as well as a more limited analysis of options between Kent/DesMoines and South 272nd Street. Von Reichbauer’s proposal would add $24 million to the 2012 budget of $17.5 million to extend the full environmental process all the way to the Federal Way Transit Center.

The earlier assumption was that Sound Transit would undertake the full environmental process after continued monitoring of the economic recovery gave us greater assurance that a double-dip recession wouldn’t undermine the process. The proposal is based on a number of factors. Eide and von Reichbauer believe that economic conditions justify moving forward immediately with the planning needed to connect King County’s third-largest city to the regional light rail system.  In addition, they believe that establishing a route to South 272nd Street requires deciding how that route would continue onward to the Federal Way Transit Center at the same time.

“I am 100 percent behind Board Member von Reichbauer’s proposed budget amendment,” said McCarthy, Pierce County Executive, who on Jan. 1 became the chair of the Sound Transit Board Chair. “Getting a record of decision all the way to the heart of Federal Way will not only expedite light rail service to Federal Way but support our long-term vision of serving Pierce County.”

“The three counties and 52 cities in the Sound Transit District are all grappling with significantly reduced revenues in our economy.  But Sound Transit has met big challenges before, and today’s action will poise us to do so again.  We should all work together to make sure that Federal Way is the 12th city to get light rail service as soon as possible,” said Constantine, King County Executive.

Extending planning efforts beyond the points where costs and funding levels were uncertain is a strategy that has already proven pivotal to expediting Sound Transit’s extensions to the University of Washington, Northgate and South 200th Street — not to mention reaching Sea-Tac International Airport within six months of opening the initial Link segment. In each of those instances, successful efforts to establish construction funding took place at the same time planning work moved forward. In 2011 Sound Transit received a record of decision for a route to extend light rail between Redmond’s Overlake and downtown areas at when funding is available.

As a result of the national recession, current independent forecasts predict a 25 percent reduction in Sound Transit’s available revenues through 2023 for moving forward with voter-approved expansions. While all five of Sound Transit’s geographic subareas face major challenges, the challenges are greatest in South King County, where revenues are now currently projected to be 32 percent lower than the original forecast. A public process Sound Transit launched in 2010 for realigning the scope and timing of Sound Transit 2 expansions has consistently found that current funding projections are insufficient to reach South 272nd Street by 2023.

Under von Reichbauer’s proposal, the planning work launched in 2012 will include conceptual engineering work and the development of the draft and final environmental impact statements necessary to make an alignment decision and receive the federal record of decision needed to move forward with construction after identifying necessary funding.  State legislation or additional authority from voters would be required to move forward with construction south of South 272nd Street.

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