After two delays, MLT City Council appears ready to OK light rail agreements

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After twice delaying a decision on approving right of way agreements necessary for Sound Transit to apply for $1.1 billion in federal light rail funding, the Mountlake Terrace City Council had more hard questions for the transit agency during the council’s Aug. 17 business meeting.

However, after an hour-long discussion on a range of issues — from station design to escalating costs to tree removal to additional commuter parking — it appears the council is ready to approve the agreements as part of its Monday, Aug. 21 meeting consent agenda.

For months, some councilmembers have been criticizing what they view as Sound Transit’s lack of responsiveness to the city regarding construction of the Mountlake Terrace light rail station, which is part of the Lynnwood Link project set to be completed in 2023. The council refused to vote on the agreements at two separate June meetings, citing concerns that Sound Transit still needed to address.

The right of way areas in question are located at 222nd and 219th Streets Southwest, where they border Interstate 5. Once approved, the agreements would permit Sound Transit to go into those areas for light rail construction work. The agreements also require Sound Transit to maintain the rights of way.

City staff had recommended that the council approve the agreements, and three Sound Transit officials were in attendance to answer councilmembers’ questions.

Councilmember Laura Sonmore, who has been outspoken in her criticism of Sound Transit’s efforts to accommodate the council’s concerns, was the first to ask questions Aug. 17. She questioned Fred Wilhelm, deputy project director of Sound Transit’s Lynnwood Link Extension, about the status of funding for light rail, whether the agency still planned to include restrooms in the Mountlake Terrace light rail station at 236th Street Southwest, and the status of tree removal and replacement.

In response to Sonomore’s questions, Wilhelm said that agency — which is at 60 percent design for the Lynnwood Link project — has been seeing “some cost pressures coming in”  involving construction, labor and right of way acquisition, the result of significant growth that is raising construction costs throughout the Puget Sound region. In response, the agency is currently undergoing a value engineering process in an effort to reduce project expenses.

“I’m wondering, are you going to go cheaper on your building materials [for the light rail station]?” Sonmore asked. “All the costs are going up… how are you going to combat all those costs that you have?”

Wilhelm said that Sound Transit wants to be “as most efficient as we can. We don’t want to build cheap. We want to build efficient and we want to make it the best-looking station we can for what budget options are there.”

Sonmore explained that she was continuing to keep a critical eye on Sound Transit’s plans because “all the construction that’s going on is based on the light rail. All the impacts to our environment seem to be based around the light rail. As you know, there’s not a whole lot of room to have this not work out. There’s so much riding on this light rail.”

Wilhelm stressed that the Mountlake Terrace transit way agreement covering right of ways is one of four (the others are in Seattle, Shoreline and Lynnwood) that the agency must have in order to apply for $1.1 billion in project funding from the Federal Transportation Administration.

Both City Manager Scott Hugill and Sound Transit officials addressed Sonmore’s concerns about ensuring that Sound Transit will replace trees that have to be removed as part of the staging area for light rail construction.

Hugill referred to statements made by Sound Transit during an open house held earlier this summer, when the agency committed to a tree replanting program that follows a Washington State Department of Transportation standard. The current plan calls for removing 255 trees and replanting nearly 500 trees — all to be located in the City of Mountlake Terrace, but outside of the guideway required for light rail construction.

Lynnwood Link Project Manager Gwen McCullough said that Sound Transit will “show the city a plan and they tell us where they would rather see them [the trees] put. We make proposals for places that would screen neighbors of their view of the guideway, or add more density to specific areas that might be not as dense to create a better habitat — all that kind of coordination,” she said

Both Wilhelm and Sound Transit’s Government Relations Manager Patrice Hardy replied that there are many questions that still need to be addressed, but stressed that the agency is looking into possible cost reductions that the public is unlikely to notice — such as the type of girder system that will be used.

“When we hear the costs are going up, it scares us because where is that extra money coming from?” Sonmore explained, adding that many residents are leaving the area as soon as they retire because the cost of living is too high.

Wilhelm replied that Sound Transit recognizes the cost concerns “and we want to be good stewards of the public funds.” That is why the agency is taking a close look at the budget now in an effort to keep costs down, he said.

McCullough stressed that Sound Transit is committed to ensuring that the city continues to be involved in the design of the Mountlake Terrace light rail station, and noted that city staff members are providing an “over the shoulder review” of station designs. The goal is to facilitate communication between Sound Transit and the public and city council “about aesthetics that you feel strongly about,” McCullough said.

But even with cost pressures, the agency wouldn’t consider significant changes to the station design because such changes would require additional review and delay Sound Transit’s efforts to apply for federal funding, she added.

“So you don’t see any problems with receiving those funds?” Sonmore asked McCullough.

“I would not say that,” McCullough replied, alluding to President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 budget that omits Lynnwood Link funding. “However, we have to move forward as if there weren’t issues,” McCullough said.

The U.S. Senate has earmarked $100 million in funds for Lynnwood Link light rail, “but they’ve also put us in the queue for a full funding grant agreement” of $1.1 billion, Hardy added. That number is fixed and can’t be adjusted due to rising construction costs, Wilhelm said.

The agency will be working with the city to obtain a conditional use permit, which is expected to be completed in the fall. Prior to that, Sound Transit officials will come before the council to present “not only the station [design], but also the [parking] lot, and also update you on plans for replacement parking during construction,” McCullough said.

Continuing with questioning about station design, Councilmember Seaun Richards asked, “You’re not actually thinking about designing the building without bathrooms, are you?”

“The designs we have right now have the bathrooms in them,” Hardy replied. “As we look at cost-saving measures, it’s something that’s on the table but it’s not something that we would do without the consent of cities. So the cities have a big say in all of this.”

“I think it’s a question of, how important it is for the city?” Hardy added.

Councilmember Bryan Wahl, who in the past has advocated that the council delay its right of way vote to apply pressure on the agency, acknowledged Sound Transit’s desire to get the transit way agreements approved now, even although the absolute deadline is the end of 2017. “We’re doing you a favor by doing it sooner rather than later,” said Wahl, who has been asking Sound Transit to pursue a variety of options for increasing parking near the light rail station — something that is not included in the current plan.

Wahl has suggested the idea of a possible public-private partnership with the nearby Gateway development, which will border the light rail station on the south, to create additional parking. Wahl has also stated his preference for a clear sound barrier — rather than one made of concrete blocks — as part of the station design.

By approving the transit way vote now, Wahl said, “we will look forward to a return favor from Sound Transit to make sure we do have in our station design [a] quality station, with bathrooms, clear sound barrier walls, [a] plaza.

“And we’re going to work together to find a solution for parking, right?” he added.

“Along those lines, that’s our intent,” Wilhelm replied. “There’s still some things to go through — the conditional use permit process, our value engineering process. But our intent is to provide the City of Mountlake Terrace with a quality light rail station.”

“That includes those elements,” Hardy immediately added.

“Thank you,” Wahl responded. “We’ll look forward to working with you on that.”

In other business, the council:

– Heard an update on the city’s plan to reinstate tree preservation, protection and replacement regulations formerly in city code, which were deleted during a process to adopt new stormwater low impact development (LID) rules in late 2016. The council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the matter Sept. 5, following a city Planning Board public hearing at a special meeting Aug. 29. City Manager Scott Hugill explained that the council’s public hearing on the tree regulations was originally scheduled for its Monday, Aug. 21 business meeting, but had to be pushed back to Sept. 5 because a Planning Board public hearing on the matter was delayed for lack of a quorum. Since advance public notice for the council meeting was issued, the item still appears on the council agenda. As a result, the hearing will be opened on Aug. 21 but continued until Sept. 5.

– Discussed possible future changes to Town Center parking standards, including current requirements for on-street angle parking vs.  parallel parking. The city is finding that with town home-style buildings, “the lot consolidation doesn’t necessarily result in longer spacing between driveways where the angled nature of the stalls would actually fit,” said City Traffic Engineer Jesse Birchman. Instead, that spacing “is about the same as it would be under parallel (parking),” he added. In addition, parallel parking requires fewer frontage improvements and right of way dedication.

Since code actually requires angled parking unless there’s a reason to deviate from it, city staff “wanted to provide kind of a high level overview of all of the streets within the town center where a code deviation would make sense,” Birchman said. He pointed to the display of maps in the council chamber (included above), highlighting areas where town homes could be built. The goal is “providing some predictability” for developers as they come into the Town Center, added Public Works Director John Cowling. The issue will come back to the council for future discussion and a decision at a later date.

– Heard a report on second quarter finances, which continue to be in line with the city’s Six-Year Financial Forecast, said Finance Director Crystil Wooldridge.

– Agreed to place on the Aug. 21 consent agenda approval of a contract with Thomas Honeywell Governmental Affairs to provide state lobbying services at a cost of $45,000 annually, an increase in $5,000 annually compared to the current contract. City Manager Scott Hugill noted that firm has assisted the city in acquiring several million dollars in funding for the Main Street project.

– Also on the Aug. 21 consent agenda is approval of a 2017-2018 Interlocal Agreement for Snohomish County Regional Drug and Gang Task Force and approval of a contract with Price & Associates PLLC to become the city’s prosecuting attorney. The current prosecuting attorney, Sandy Sullivan, is moving out of state.

Monday’s meeting will be at 7 p.m. in the interim City Hall, 6100 219th St. S.W., 2nd Floor, Mountlake Terrace. You can see the complete agenda here.
— By Teresa Wippel

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