Sound Transit, politics and Superfund sites

Elected leaders and residents want a landfill as the preferred site, and that raises questions.

Bob Roegner

Bob Roegner

As Sound Transit moves farther south toward Federal Way and Tacoma, the selection of a location for a south operations center for light rail has become more controversial, and political, as the list was reduced from 24 possible locations to six.

The facility needs 30 acres, will operate 24 hours per day and will employ 300 people to repair, clean and service the train cars. To date, elected leaders and residents want a landfill selected as the preferred site, and that raises two questions. Why is the landfill site even still under consideration? And does anyone have a second choice?

The other sites are Lowes, Dicks Drive in Restaurant; South 316th Street and Military Road; South 336th Street and I-5; and South 344th Street and I-5.

The next step is selection of sites for the environmental review process and the final selection will significantly change the area chosen. Predictably residents and businesses do not want it near them or to be inconvenienced, and want the operations center to go to another location.

The two landfill sites are part of the same superfund landfill that could pose significant environmental risks if chosen, and are the two most expensive sites by almost double the cost of other locations. Those costs include a 3 foot thick concrete pad supported by piles. Preliminary estimates for the landfill sites are $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion, while the other sites are $750 million to $800 million.

Sound Transit Executive Direct Peter Rogoff has expressed his concern about the two landfill sites, due to possible health effects on the employees who will work there, along with the surrounding neighbors, if the land is disturbed. Kent and Federal Way mayors and council members say the landfill remains their preferred alternative.

The Kent Public Works staff disputes Sound Transit’s costs estimates and the City Council authorized hiring of an engineering consultant to review the numbers. Kent also noted that the area is monitored and has tried a preemptory strike by changing the zoning.

Recently County Council member Dave Upthegrove, who is one of 18 members of the Sound Transit Board, joined Kent city leaders by announcing he will ask that the Lowe’s/Dicks Drive-in site be removed from the list. That puts the other 17 board members in an awkward position. It could also add more to the chorus of residents that prefer the landfill site.

At a public briefing before the Federal Way Council, Deputy Mayor Susan Honda asked the key question: “Why is the landfill site still on the list,” noting the high costs and environmental concerns.

Sound Transit staff said because the two sites are visible and appear as vacant land. That was a cautious answer, with a meaning that may not have been understood by all in attendance. Sound Transit has a lot of smart people on their payroll who have experience in handling this type of political, technical and financial challenge. They knew several things they couldn’t say. If they eliminated the landfill site without current environmental data, the political firestorm would be much worse than it currently is.

They knew some residents wouldn’t care about the cost as long as they were not inconvenienced or required to relocate their business or residence. The staff also knew there would be political grandstanding by politicians who want to appease voters and stay in office. They also knew that the elected leaders in Kent and Federal Way would not support putting recently-located Dick’s hamburger stand, with its loyal following, out of business nor want to take on one of the biggest churches in the region in Christain Faith Center.

Sound Transit’s caution and maneuvering is needed because if they got pushed into proceeding with the landfill sites by the political needs of the current county or city elected officials, rather than accurate data, Sound Transit would be responsible if the employees and neighbors start getting sick in the future? The pricetag to the public would be enormous and destroy Sound Transit’s credibility.

To Sound Transit staff, the politics were predictable and required their seasoned approach. The landfill sites will likely be on the list for the next phase of environmental review along with two other sites. If the review shows no long-term danger to the employees and the public, it could reduce the price, and could be selected as the preferred alternative for the operations center.

However, if the review shows significant environmental concern and high cost, Sound Transit will have the data justification they need to eliminate the site despite public and political pressure.

That’s why the landfill is still on the list. And if the tests are prohibitive, have local political leaders, in their zeal to satisfy current voters, given any thought to a second choice that would protect future voters?

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.

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