A couple of weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and King County Executive Ron Sims delivered some flabbergasting news to the citizens of Rainier Valley—they were considering canceling the section of the light rail line that would run through their neighborhood. Though Schell is now doing his best to distance himself from the controversial proposal, residents say the whole affair illustrates how quickly the mayor is willing to sacrifice their interests in the name of moneyed downtown business owners.
According to Diane Davies, executive director of the Rainier Valley Transit Advisory Council, Schell and Sims sat down with the 20-plus members of the Rainier Valley Light Rail Coalition on August 12 and tiptoed through a revamp of the plan: They suggested running trolley lines through the neighborhood southeast of downtown Seattle, rather than the proposed light rail line. This came as a shock to residents, given that the southeast track, slated to run down Martin Luther King Way, was approved last February by the Sound Transit Board as part of the voter-mandated, U-District to SeaTac, 22-mile track.
Running a wimpy trolley through Rainier Valley, rather than a robust light rail line, seemed like a cop-out. Davies says the trolley plan didn't even come with a funding component. "When there's no funding, you question if it will happen at all," she says. "The whole thing raised more questions than it answered."
But one thing is clear to Davies, and that's motive. Downtown Seattle businesses have been pushing to extend the track north from the University of Washington up to Northgate. The extension north would cost around $370 million, and guess how much the line through Rainier Valley is supposed to cost? You guessed it—$370 million. Schell and Sims did their best to keep the two deals apart, but that didn't appease Davies. "They wanted it to appear that they were separate issues," she says, "but frankly I have to question that. Simply because of the timing of it."
Less than two weeks before Schell and Sims sat down with Rainier Valley residents, the Downtown Seattle Association (the umbrella group for downtown business and property owners like Wright Runstad, which owns the $243 million Washington Mutual Tower) issued a report condemning the Sound Transit Plan. Their beef: The line stops at the UW, rather than extending to Northgate.
The DSA's complaint is a legitimate one. Without a Northgate line, bus congestion will cripple downtown. Light rail is slated to displace the buses from the downtown tunnel, moving them up to street level; the DSA estimates that current light rail plans could lead to as many as 150 more buses downtown. If the line ran north, they reason, buses headed in that direction would be unnecessary.
DSA President Kate Joncas says downtown property owners will never support a transit plan that doesn't run to Northgate and beyond. Evidently, she told the mayor—a former downtown developer himself—the same thing. In a chest-thumping e-mail to county and city officials, Joncas flexed DSA muscle: "We had been asked by the Mayor and the County Executive to delay taking a formal position on the plan until we had discussed our concerns with them," Joncas wrote. "We requested a meeting and yesterday had a chance to discuss the plan…. Based on that meeting, we have agreed to give the Mayor and County Executive time over the next few weeks to explore these ideas with other constituencies." The next day, Rainier Valley got the word that their light rail line might be nixed.
The DSA is obviously not bashful about its clout. "Downtown is the biggest employment center in the Northwest," Joncas says. "We have 160,000 employees a day [coming to downtown Seattle]. If the Sound Transit Plan doesn't work for us, it just doesn't work. Of course the mayor is paying attention to DSA."
But others find the organization's arrogance and influence troubling. "The DSA just got focused on this in the last month or two," says King County Council Member Greg Nickels, who serves on the Sound Transit Board, which is overseeing the light rail plan. "Running light rail through Rainier Valley and stopping at the U-District… this was already resolved. The mayor gave his support in March. I think the concern from the DSA refocused this, [which] was frustrating."
Jared Smith, Schell's point man on Sound Transit, told The Stranger the mayor shares the DSA's concern about bus congestion, but he denies Schell was doing their bidding. Last week's "trial balloon" (which is how Smith refers to the trolley plan) was not a response to political pressure from the DSA, Smith claims, adding that "it was an idea that he had a long time ago." Strange how that idea came to the forefront just after the DSA's report.
After a meeting with Sound Transit Board members, particularly those representing south King County and Pierce County (who reportedly put a hole in Schell's "trial balloon"), Schell started backpedaling, and is now saying he won't cut the Rainier Valley plan. "The mayor will never sell out South Seattle to get to Northgate," Smith says.