At yesterday’s Board meeting, Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff confronted a growing backlash against a potential operations and maintenance facility (OMF) site in Kent.
Rogoff detailed Sound Transit’s efforts to prevent a backlash, and also presented questionable legal analysis about the threat of a lawsuit against Sound Transit over the issue.
As Bruce wrote yesterday, the Kent City Council rezoned one of the candidate sites, which presently holds a Dick’s and Lowe’s, in an attempt to forestall further consideration of the site for OMF. Kent councilmembers have also expressed concerns that some sites could limit the TOD potential of future Link stations.
Rogoff said that the agency is far from a decision on a final site, and hasn’t ruled out any of the contenders.
“We have been letting stakeholders know that we are in the very early stages in the identification process,” Rogoff said. “Needless to say, board members know there is no easy location to site an operations and maintenance facility. That’s particularly true in the South End.”
Rogoff said that a three month public comment and scoping period, which will include all potential sites, will start in March. The Board will then use the public comments and staff analysis to select alternatives for the two year environmental review.
“Not all projects that would necessarily be considered as part of scoping—the Board may not necessarily decide to advance all of those into the EIS phase. We must, by law, evaluate a range of sites in this upcoming two-year EIS process.”
To reassure the Board, Rogoff detailed Sound Transit’s always-robust outreach efforts, which could calm the waters. He also said that, for similar reasons, he had a meeting this week with Kent Mayor Dana Ralph about the matter. Rogoff says the meeting will yield better communication between the agency and the city.
But Rogoff also strained to suggest that Kent’s zoning actions could expose Sound Transit to otherwise-avoidable legal risk.
“Existing commercial uses and incompatible zoning alone are not enough to protect Sound Transit from a potential legal challenge later in the process,” Rogoff said.
That idea—that the recent zoning changes could heighten the risk of a suit challenging the environmental review—seems like a stretch. Any well-organized group (or, as is often the case, a disorganized one) can file a suit during an environmental review process for any old reason, no matter how dubious. Local examples abound.
Seattle anti-density activists sued to challenge the MHA environmental review process. The suit was dismissed at the end of 2018. Another Seattle group challenged the environmental review of the new 520 bridge, only to have the suit dismissed in 2012. Bellevue residents sued Sound Transit itself over the environmental review process during the Great Bellevue Light Rail Wars, though the suit was dismissed in 2013.
That’s all to say that Sound Transit could easily be sued by any sufficiently pissed-off neighborhood group in Kent (or anywhere else), even if they do everything right. And anyway, those kinds of lawsuits usually don’t work if the planning entity has done its homework.
So why would Rogoff bring it up? My guess is he probably wants to prevent any delay of construction down the road. EIS suits can sometimes result in injunctions against a project or policy while they’re litigated, as in the case of the MHA litigation.
The real problem is political. If the agency can’t calm the brewing Kent backlash and build a working relationship with elected officials, the city might continue to legislate against Sound Transit’s wishes.
Rogoff’s public scolding of the Kent City Council won’t prevent that. In fact, it might just make things worse.
Shutdown blocks cash flow
Sound Transit can’t get a call back from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) because of the federal government shutdown. They can’t get a check cashed, either.
Rogoff said at the meeting that Sound Transit can’t get its FTA-funded expenditures reimbursed while the government is closed. However, Rogoff says that Sound Transit has enough cash on hand, and a robust farebox and sales tax cash flow, to manage operations and capital projects already under way—for the time being.
If the shutdown continues indefinitely, Sound Transit could run low on its cash reserves. In the worst case, that could force the agency to cut operations. Fortunately, Rogoff sounded confident that the agency is far away from that outcome.
However, some planning and engineering on new projects will be delayed. Furloughed FTA employees need to review certain planning and engineering documents for new projects before that work can continue.
Board membership changes
The start of 2019 brought notable changes to the Sound Transit Board’s membership and leadership.
Redmond Mayor John Marchione is the new chair, replacing Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. He’ll serve until the end of this year, when he finishes his term as mayor and retires from public service. The Board will pick a new chair at the end of 2019.
Marchione has been a member of the Board since 2008. Notably, Marchione successfully advocated for the Redmond segment of ST3 to be elevated.
Former vice chair Ron Lucas, Mayor of Steilacoom, abruptly resigned from the Board this week. Lucas, a longtime Sound Transit critic, will be replaced as vice chair by Kent Keel, Mayor of University Place. Lucas’s seat on the Board will be filled by Kim Roscoe, Mayor of Fife.
Keel was the chair of Pierce Transit’s Board for several years, helping the agency recover from a fiscal crisis and reorganize service to great acclaim. Keel was the only Sound Transit Board member to vote against giving Rogoff a raise last year. He also has the right idea about escalators.
North 130th engineering approved
The Board voted unanimously to kick off engineering and analysis for the North 130th Street station by amending the existing Lynnwood Link design-build contract with HNTB.
Snohomish County officials, including board member Paul Roberts, continued to express fiscal concerns about building the station as part of the initial line, rather than as an infill station, but voted to let analysis go ahead.
The station isn’t yet approved to be built at the same time as the rest of the line, which would prevent single tracking and other construction-related service disruptions. Rogoff joked that the coming single-tracking in the downtown tunnel might sway Snohomish board members’ opinions.
The board will consider that question when engineering and cost analysis reports for both options (i.e. infill and all-at-once construction) are available.
The agenda called for the Board to approve an update to the agency-wide Sustainability Plan.
Instead, the Board punted on approval and sent the update to committee for detailed review. Board members discussed Sound Transit’s emissions targets, energy mix, and the possibility of sourcing the next generation fleet with more electric-powered vehicles.
The Board will discuss the issue further in an Executive Committee meeting. The Executive Committee meets next on February 7.