West Seattle light rail in Southwest District Council spotlight

Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

“This is just the start.”

Regarding the hot topic of light rail in West Seattle, that was a common theme and assurance from Sound Transit experts and longtime community leaders alike at the monthly meeting of the Southwest District Council, held at the Senior Center of West Seattle on Wednesday night.

Following the previous Friday’s meeting of the Elected Leadership Group and this past Tuesday’s deadline to submit “scoping comments,” the project has definitely taken the next step, but leaders stressed that the end of the 3rd and final level of filtering routing/statio options for environmental review certainly isn’t the end of public input.

Several staff members from Sound Transit talked about the latest plans at the meeting (with a special focus on potential housing displacement), including West Seattle project lead Stephen Mak (pictured above), outreach supervisor Leda Chahim and property director Joe Gray, to summarize the project proposals and report on current status. Later in the meeting, representatives from the new East Alaska Junction Neighborhood Coalition organization (initially formed in response to ST plans, as we reported here) also introduced themselves to the SW District Council, and talked about ways to collaborate in the future on transit and on broader issues.

Aside from the core agenda, attendees went around the room for quick announcements, including:

  • Cindi Barker (who represents the West Seattle Emergency Communication Hubs) reminded attendees of the Seattle-wide June 1st “field exercise” from 9 am-noon, involving several West Seattle hubs including Hiawatha, Morgan Junction, and probably Alaska Junction. Barker said the disaster scenario for the drill will be a “Seattle Fault earthquake.”
  • Jim Guenther gave an update on behalf of the District 1 Community Network, and talked about a recent meeting in which they discussed plans to do an online survey of area residents, and what the role of D1CN would be.  The group will also be hosting a D1 city council forum discussion for the two candidates in play after the primaries, and will help organize tables of “community sherpa” experts (like bicycle enthusiasts) at upcoming area festivals. The group will meet again in April.
  • Amanda Sawyer (pictured below), co-chair of SWDC and director of the Junction Neighborhood Organization (JuNO), said the next meeting of JuNO will be in early June, with an update from the Office of Planning and Community Development about light rail planning, particularly about the process of updating neighborhood plans once the likely route options are determined.

Chahim kicked off the Sound Transit presentation with an overview of where things stand in the process: At the end of “level 3” filtering, with groups meeting during the next six weeks leading up to the ST board’s recommendation on May 23, an anticipated publication date of the plan in late 2020 as it relates to the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), further discussions and a more detailed plan in 2022, with a construction timeline of 2025-2030 (finishing in 2030). Chahim added that the ST group is working on going through all of the 2,000 comments from the latest scoping period and identifying themes, and that the results would be available to the public as part of outreach efforts. From the ST website:

What we’ll do with your feedback

  • Document input in the Scoping Summary Report.
  • Share input with the Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG), Elected Leadership Group (ELG) and the Sound Transit Board.
  • The Sound Transit Board will review all input received, as well as the recommendations from the SAG and ELG, before identifying the preferred alternative and other alternatives to study in the Draft EIS.

Process for board decision

  • April 17, 2019: The SAG will make their recommendations on their preferred alternative and other alternatives to study in the EIS
  • April 26, 2019: The ELG will make their recommendations to the Sound Transit Board on their preferred alternative and other alternatives to study in the EIS
  • May 9, 2019: The System Expansion Committee of the Sound Transit Board will identify a preferred alternative and other alternatives to study in the EIS
  • May 23, 2019: The full Sound Transit Board will identify a preferred alternative and other alternatives to study in the EIS

Mak went through a slide presentation describing the project and the history of the various phases and route options. He noted that ST would start reaching out prior to the 2020 plan to property owners potentially impacted by the rail routes.

Gray, who heads up real estate and property work for ST, further explained his department’s role, saying that “in 2022 we really start getting involved, but for now we’re answering a lot of questions about the process” because until the design and alignment is finalized, “that’s the best we can do — we can’t give particulars but we can provide education and answer questions.”

In response to a question about timing, the ST group clarified that 2022 is when details will crystallize such as the placement of the route and which parts will be elevated and which will be a tunnel. At that point, Gray and his team can get into detailed discussions with property owners regarding the specific impacts to their property — it could be a “full” impact involving the entire property, or a “partial” impact involving a portion or corner of the property, for example.

Another attendee noted that even though the scoping period has ended, community members should definitely still continue to review the latest light rail plans and provide comments to ST because this is “just the start” of the process, which drew head nods and “yes” comments from neighborhood leaders and ST staff in the room.

Leda Chahim and Joe Gray from Sound Transit

Raw notes from Q&A between attendees and ST staff are below:

  • Q: Does the “red line” (the only option that has a track running down Fauntleroy Way) actually impact properties on Fauntleroy — I thought the street was wide enough to accommodate the track?  A: Yes, it would likely cause an impact “because of the geometry” of proposed route, on buildings such as Spruce/L.A. Fitness.
  • Q: How did the various assessments of each proposed route (“this option is good regarding cost, this other option is bad regarding business displacement”) come about; was it a closed-door committee? Answer: No, those involved a lot of roundtable discussions with leaders, stakeholders, and experts.
  • Q from Sawyer: Generally speaking, is this project running similarly to other ST projects in the past?  A (from Mak): ST has done a lot more public involvement in early stages than we have in previous projects. Chahim: We had initially said West Seattle would have light rail in 2033, but people wanted it faster, so one way to accelerate that (can only go so quickly on construction and design) was to be more efficient with planning, and do it early.  In past projects, “right now is when we’d kick off all of the outreach” but in this case we’ve had a full year of learning and hearing from the public about common themes. Also, we have heard interest in other route options that would require extra third-party funding, and because it’s early in the process, there is still time for those options to be considered, so we’ve suggested to the Stakeholder Advisory Group and Elected Leadership Group that they could look at those options and work on them and then bring to the table 1) a route option comparable to our others in terms of scope and schedule and 2) a route option that goes beyond that; something bigger.
  • Q from Guenther: What are the rights of the individual citizen if their property is being planned for ST to use, either fully or completely (if my front yard is taken away then my house isn’t much use).  A from Gray: Our process is pretty standard, it’s not a takeover, we negotiate with the property owners. If we make an offer on your property and you say no, we sit down with you (as early as possible) to find out what issues are there and most importantly “to find out what your wishes are” as we go down the path. The federal government has given us a law that lets us do things in this situation, but our process is absolutely a sit-down discussion and negotiation. Q: What about attorney fees? A: We pay up to a certain amount of attorney fees as well as appraisals up to a certain amount. We’re not perfect, and you have the opportunity to get an appraisal and be reimbursed.  Chahim: mid-2020 is when the maps will be updated and we likely reach out and say there’s a chance that your property could be affected.  But a potentially impacted property owner doesn’t have to wait, they can contact ST staff today.  Gray: What we do tell everyone is that we don’t have exact responses, because we don’t have a design. Even the proposed route maps don’t give Gray’s team the full story, he said, because they don’t know exactly how much landed is needed for the tracks in various areas, for example.  This prompted a follow-up discussion between meeting attendees about impacted homeowners selling their property — do they have to disclose that ST is coming? (“that’s between you and your realtor,” “maybe not legally required, but morally yes.”)
  • Q: For the proposed north/south stations in the Alaska Junction, are they underground? A: Yes, all three “blue line” station options are underground.  The red and orange are elevated above ground.  Follow-up Q: Neighbors further south in West Seattle have asked if the routes stay underground as the light rail expands from the Junction to the south. A from Mak: Expansion to the south isn’t in the scope of the current project. We of course need to be mindful of it.  Chahim: We would do a formal study on the options to the south and look at ways to get feedback from the public. Mak: There will be a future study on high-capacity transit to the south.  General comment from Chahim: At every stage of feedback, we can look at “mixed and matched” elements of the routes, it’s not all or nothing with the various route options.
  • Q: You talked about new route options that the groups could come up with on their own; what about those? There won’t be any public comments on those, isn’t that a concern? Initial answer from Larry Wymer of the Admiral Neighborhood Association and West Seattle Transportation Coalition: WSTC made comments as a group to bring back pieces of past ideas that had been discarded. Barker: In past projects, it’s often the citizen that end up “being the champions” and speaking out if there are new plans or revisions that come in late.  Chahim said there is a balance between wanting to give those groups the opportunity to look at alternatives like third-party-funded plans, and doing full public comment periods, but they always try to accommodate, and the rules are different in various periods (like scoping and Environmental Impact Statement) in terms of whether ST needs to respond to every comment. Mak: we are asking those groups to come up with alternatives to discuss, and we’ll do it in a way in which those alternatives can then be commented on by the public.
  • Q from Ray Krueger: What about the “headways” (the frequency of train arrivals) that are planned — had heard that there would be trains every 3 minutes downtown, and every 6 minutes in West Seattle.  A: It’s early in the process, too early to know for sure, but of course the goal is to run them as frequently as possible.

As ST wrapped up their portion of the meeting agenda, representatives in attendance from the new East Alaska Junction Neighborhood Coalition (Charlie Able, Aimee Riordan and Jen Shaughnessy) talked about the formation of their group and their plans.

Cindi Barker, and the East Junction Neighborhood Coalition’s Charlie Able and Aimee Riordan.

“We’re happy to have opportunity to come and talk to you,” Riordan said, noting that it was the first broader council meeting that the group had attended. Able noted that the group began as roughly 12 neighbors living in the area between 35th and 41st avenues, and Oregon and Genesee streets, sharing concerns about new rail route options that would have a significant impact in their area. The group is now roughly 200 people, “mostly online,” and looking to expand their reach. Riordan said “we only started meeting about 5 weeks ago, generally we’re advocates of the tunnel option.”  They have had a few meetings and have started to leverage expertise among group members (“data scientists, contractors, all kinds of skills), and wrote a 30-page scoping document that Riordan said “basically reverse-engineered an EIS,” collected just over 200 signatures from neighbors and have it posted on their website.

Longtime neighborhood leaders in attendance offered advice and asked questions of the East Junction group.  Barker asked how the group is reaching out to all of their neighbors to get input, and then following up to tell them what you’re saying on their behalf.  Able and Riordan said they’ve been doorbelling a lot, handed out 400 flyers, doing their best to engage. Barker said that was a good start and they should “gear up for the long haul” and document every conversation and interaction, encourage people to sign up to your lists, because these projects take years and “people won’t remember that they talked to you.” (“I’m glad that I didn’t throw out” all of her old monorail documents, Barker joked, referencing the scrapped regional project from a decade ago). Barker also gestured to Yun Pitre (in attendance, from the Department of Neighborhoods) as a great resource to help the East Junction get access to residents who may be harder to reach (people in apartments, the elderly, etc).  Barker also suggested that the group reach out to former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels, who was deeply involved in regional transit issues (and is a member of the SAG).

Riordan said the group did a neighborhood walk earlier in the week with Joe McDermott (which she described as productive but was a bit of “preaching to the choir” because McDermott is already aligned with many of their goals, but she said they did “push him a bit” on the issues). WSB was along; more on that in a separate report Monday.

The Southwest District Council meets the first Wednesday of most months, 6:30 pm at the Senior Center of West Seattle’s Nucor Room.

*CORRECTION: Edited 5:22 pm Monday to fix misidentification of Sound Transit’s Leda Chahim as Andrea Burnett, who was the originally announced guest.

2 Replies to "West Seattle light rail in Southwest District Council spotlight"

  • Deb B April 8, 2019 (5:16 pm)

    Jason – From the photos you took, Leda Chahim covered for Andrea Burnett for the SWDC Sound Transit presentation. 

    • WSB April 8, 2019 (5:19 pm)

      Yes, ST called that to our attention today and we’re currently correcting it. Our apologies for the error. – TR

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