by Dave Kaplan
Mayor and Councilmember
City of Des Moines
If you build it they will come – if you build it in the right place.
As my good friend Dr. Sell recently noted, Sound Transit will soon decide on a preferred alignment and station locations for the Federal Way Light rail Extension. Barring unforeseen circumstances, that decision will be made on July 23, 2015.
Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and misperceptions regarding the project, and the rationale behind the decision on the part of the cities of Seatac, Des Moines, Kent and Federal Way to support a SR 509/I-5 alignment.
First, I want to take note that it took ten months of careful consideration of each city’s future needs before arriving at a consensus position for the SR 509/I-5 alignment. It wasn’t pulled out of thin air. It wasn’t based on temporary impacts or concerns, but the long-term implications of where the alignment and stations should go. The four cities, each with their own visions of future land use and their own needs to meet those visions, came to the table to find a creative and supportable solution that would work for all. With some necessary compromises, we accomplished that goal.
Only a SR 509/I-5 alignment works for Des Moines. There is no benefit to the alignment portion of the project; there is only benefit where there are stations. If on Hwy 99, running an elevated rail line down the median past the third or fourth floor of new buildings creates a negative impact for those buildings already built or under construction, and provides a disincentive for anyone to build there. It essentially reverses our incentives for Pacific Ridge up-zoning … zoning intended to take advantage of the transit connections that already exist, and which easily connect with future light rail station locations. Running the alignment in a trench through the commercial properties on the west side encumbers access, values and use of those commercial properties, and destroys the single-family neighborhood immediately north of the Highline College campus. We have a limited amount of commercial land in Des Moines, and a Hwy 99 alignment will do nothing to increase the value of it.
Regarding additional stations, and the potential benefits that would bring, the voters have only approved stations in the vicinity of Highline College and around S. 272nd Street … nothing in-between. Given that there are likely only enough funds to build to Highline College, it is not realistic to expect stations to be approved at S. 216th or S. 260th for some time to come. (Stations run $50-$80 million a copy for an elevated alignment.) In fact, it would likely require a ST3 proposal on the ballot next year to complete the project down to S. 272nd, let alone completing the link down to the heart of Federal Way. In short, a Hwy 99 alignment guarantees at least 20-25 years of impact, with no guarantee of benefit to the residents and businesses of Des Moines in the form of a station.
Transit Oriented Development & Station Locations. No one from any city or other stakeholder in the process has advocated a station on I-5. None. Des Moines has and continues to strongly support a station in the vicinity of Highline College. In fact, given our saw-toothed border, the City of Des Moines worked cooperatively with the City of Kent on Envision Midway back in 2008-09. Envision Midway was in part a joint visioning exercise for future land use in the area of a future light rail station. Both cities have rezoned the area for development that would be considered “transit-oriented development” (TOD), and last fall Des Moines changed its zoning for our four parcels on the west side of Hwy 99 to create a Transit-Commercial zone.
Highline Place is a $50 million project that will be built on the west side of Hwy 99 under those zoning rules. In fact, Highline College has been in negotiations to take space in that project, which would also provide a large number of apartments that would be (presumably) rented by students attending the College. An existing structure has already been knocked down, and construction will likely begin this fall. A station located on the west side of Hwy 99 would actually wipe out this $50 million investment that is intended to be the type of TOD everyone would like to see.
Regardless of alignment, a station on the west side of Hwy 99 does not work to the benefit of Des Moines. We support a station east of Hwy 99, and no further east than 30th Avenue S. The City of Kent makes a compelling case for having the station on the west side of 30th Avenue S. This is closer to campus than the Lowe’s parking lot, city neighborhood streets, and the park and ride lot at Military Road and Kent-Des Moines Road (east of I-5) that a number of students park in today to get to campus. All four cities support construction of a pedestrian-bicycle skybridge across Hwy 99 to tie directly from the station to the campus. In addition to the construction of a street and signal at S. 236th Lane (where the Baskin & Robbins is), this would be a great, safe connection with the campus.
Residential Displacements. The bulk of the residential displacements with a SR 509/I-5 alignment occur in Des Moines. However, over half of those residents will be displaced with construction of SR 509, and more will be displaced with some of the developments already being considered in Pacific Ridge. Based on conversations with Sound Transit’s relocation assistance people, it is apparent that their relocation efforts and assistance are far superior to those of the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Accessibility. Some want to put stations only where anyone can walk. The reality is people live further away than walking or biking can accommodate. Accessibility means accessibility for all. Not only those who live in Des Moines, but those who live in Kent too. Key to making this work is the east-west connections to get people to the light rail stations. That’s where King County Metro’s plan to dovetail its service is critical. Getting people from the east hill of Kent or Kent valley is as important as getting people from Redondo and Woodmont to a station. Again, accessibility means accessibility for all.
Social Justice. Futurewise, One America, and students at Highline College have advocated for a Hwy 99 alignment. Having a station immediately adjacent to campus is understandable, but ignores the needs of the entire City of Des Moines. But what is it that the immigrant and other communities want from transit, be it light rail or buses? According to Sound Transit’s Draft Environment Impact Statement they want transit that is affordable, fast, and frequent. These students are already making their way to Highline College, and they will continue to do so. The College does an excellent job of meeting their needs, and we support and applaud their efforts. These students are no more disadvantaged in getting to the College if the station is east of Hwy 99 than if it was on the west side of Hwy 99. A difference of 500 feet doesn’t provide an impediment to students motivated to better their lives. People will get to where they need to get for work, for play, and for educational opportunities.
Of course none of this speaks to the fact that there is little difference between a SR 509/I-5 alignment and a Hwy 99 alignment (with a station no further east than 30th Avenue S, regardless of alignment) in terms of ridership numbers or time to travel. They are nearly identical.
Given all of these considerations, all with an eye toward the future of our great city and that of our neighboring communities, a SR 509/I-5 is by far the best alternative for Des Moines’ residents into the future.