Should Pierce County secede from regional planning giant? Lakewood’s starting to think so

What does the Puget Sound Regional Council do?

Reporter Adam Lynn talks about the Puget Sound Regional Council and where some of the money goes.
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Reporter Adam Lynn talks about the Puget Sound Regional Council and where some of the money goes.

The city of Lakewood has picked a fight with a regional planning giant that doles out millions in federal transportation dollars each year.

Lakewood officials contend the Puget Sound Regional Council is out of touch, imperious and too focused on Seattle.

They’ve commissioned a study to determine whether it makes sense for Pierce County to pull out of the four-county conglomerate and begin charting its own course on land-use and transportation planning.

The fallout from such a move would be huge.

The cities, towns and unincorporated areas of Pierce County would gain control of their own destinies as far as managing growth, but they also would go into direct competition with King, Snohomish and Kitsap counties for federal transportation money.

Right now the regional council serves as the pass-through for nearly $250 million per year.

A successful rebellion also might strain relations among area leaders and add another layer of bureaucracy in a region tied closely together by several challenges, traffic congestion not the least of them.

Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield acknowledges the downsides of the county going it alone, but argues that it might make sense.

Many members of the regional council believe their voices aren’t heard and that they are not getting their fair share of highway and transit money, seeing it siphoned off into greater Seattle instead, Caulfield said.

“We want to bring these issues forward,” he told The News Tribune last month. “We don’t want any surprises, so we’ve reached out to every city in Pierce County to let them know what we’re doing. The response hasn’t been, ‘Oh my goodness, what are you doing?’

“A lot of cities have a lot of the same, or similar, concerns that we have. It’s not just one issue. This has been building over time.”

Others aren’t so sure.

Pat McCarthy is the state’s auditor, but before that she served two terms as Pierce County executive.

The combined force of Pierce, King, Snohomish and Kitsap counties has substantial clout, the kind that gets the attention of policymakers in the other Washington, she said.

What’s more, the four counties have worked together over the years on projects that have benefited the region, McCarthy said.

“We’ve made tremendous allegiances and collaborations,” she said. “I personally think that it would be a mistake for Pierce County to go its own way.”

All about the money

The Puget Sound Regional Council has been around in one form or other for nearly 60 years, first brought together by regional leaders who saw benefit in working together on common issues, especially transportation planning.

Its aim is to funnel growth into areas already prepared to handle it, with the goal to reduce sprawl, ease traffic congestion and cut back on vehicle emissions.

“The policy as adopted by our board is that we should try to align our land-use planning and our transportation planning,” said Josh Brown, the council’s executive director.

About 80 municipalities now belong to the council, as well as Pierce, King, Snohomish and Kitsap county governments.

The council’s governing body, the General Assembly, comprises elected officials from all local government members and meets at least once a year to discuss overarching policies and other matters.

The council also operates several smaller boards and commissions, with the growth management, transportation and operations boards among the most important and influential.

It also has a professional staff, headed by Brown, a former Kitsap County commissioner.

In the early 1990s, the regional council was tasked with allocating federal transportation money for the central Puget Sound region, including dollars from the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration.

It appropriates about $250 million annually, nearly two-thirds of that transit dollars, Brown said.

The money is highly sought after.

Over the years it has paid for projects ranging from sidewalk improvements in Ruston to multimillion-dollar road projects in Tacoma, Lakewood and University Place, among other Pierce County locales.

Any member government can apply for money if its comprehensive land-use plan — essentially its blueprint for how it intends to grow — has been certified by the council.

And that’s the rub for some, including Lakewood.

Leaders of more than one municipality contend planners at the regional council have uncharacteristically high or low expectations about how their cities should grow.

Don Morrison, city administrator in Bonney Lake, said that some of of the council’s predictions “fly in the face of reality.”

Last summer, five small cities in King County, Covington among them, complained that the regional council was unrealistically trying to constrain their ability to grow.

The council takes “a blanket approach” to planning, which often doesn’t comport with reality, Richard Hart, Covington’s community development director, told The Seattle Times for a story it published in June.

“The pressure on us comes in every day from developers who want permits based on existing zoning,” Hart told the newspaper. “We’re growing. They (the regional council) can say don’t grow, but we’re growing.”

Lakewood has the opposite problem, Caulfield said.

Planners at the regional council have estimated the city’s population will grow from its current 58,000 or so to almost 95,000 by 2040. The council also projected the city’s job base would swell to more than 41,000 by 2035 from 25,000 today.

Lakewood planners see the city’s population growing to only about 67,000 in that time and its job base not growing nearly as much as the regional council predicts, Caulfield said.

Why does it matter?

Caulfield pointed out in a memorandum to his City Council that Lakewood spent $12,000 to rejigger its comprehension plan to jibe with the regional council’s models.

“While we completed the analysis so we would not be penalized as part of PSRC’s transportation funding process, we realistically know our employment levels will not reach the number provided by PSRC,” he wrote to the City Council in February.

The regional council isn’t really in charge of setting population projections, Brown, the agency’s executive director, said in a March letter to Caulfield.

“Instead, they are agreed upon locally in Pierce County — between the county and the cities — through your countywide planning processes,” he wrote. “How much growth is going to go where? That’s a local decision.”

Caulfield told The News Tribune that the regional council still can veto a city’s growth plan and then withhold transportation funding.

“That’s a big hammer and a big carrot,” he said.

Lakewood and some other Pierce County cities also complain that the council does not recognize Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the county’s largest employer and one of the biggest in the state, as a major employment center.

Such a designation would allow cities near the base to make better arguments about why they need more transportation dollars, among other things.

Some local leaders think that would be a threat to King County cities, which might see less cash flowing their way, which has prompted the regional council to drag its feet on designating JBLM an employment center.

“It’s all about the money, basically,” said Morrison, the Bonney Lake city administrator.

Ah, yes, the money.

There is a feeling among some regional council members that King County and Seattle get the lion’s share of the transportation money allocated each year.

“We have received some funding over the years, but not very much,” said Morrison, whose city, according to the regional council’s data, was awarded $1.5 million in transportation money between 1992 and 2015.

The council has awarded about $4.7 billion to 1,847 projects between 1992 and 2016. King County-based recipients, including Seattle, received about $2.7 billion of that for 805 projects, the data show.

During the same period, Pierce County-based recipients got about $645 million for 395 projects. That number includes money awarded to the state Department of Transportation’s Olympic Region, which includes Pierce County.

It stands to reason that King County, which has the highest population in the state and the most jobs in the region, should receive a bigger share of the pie.

It also is worth noting that the region’s biggest transit agencies, including Sound Transit and King County Metro, are Seattle-based.

But some ask whether King County is getting too much.

The latest population estimates from the U.S. Census put King County’s population at just over 2.1 million while Pierce County’s estimated population is about 861,300.

That means King County is about 2.5 times bigger, yet it got about four times as much money from 1992 to 2016.

“We think we need to have our share,” said Doug Richardson, a member of the Pierce County Council.

‘They have the votes’

John Marchione is the mayor of Redmond and president of the regional council’s executive board.

Marchione recently told The News Tribune that Pierce County’s concerns have been well represented at the regional agency.

“The past president of the PSRC was the Pierce County executive” — Pat McCarthy — “the latest in a long line of Pierce County leaders at PSRC, which has meant a lot of focus on things that matter in Pierce County,” he said.

Marchione pointed to the dispute over JBLM’s designation as an employment center as an example.

“There’s an active dialogue at PSRC about how to best recognize military bases, including JBLM, which is clearly an employment center,” he said. “I am hoping that will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction within a few months.”

McCarthy, who participated in the debate over JBLM while she was county executive, agreed.

“We had to make the case, but I don’t think that was necessarily bad,” she said.

Marchione also said his feeling is Pierce County in general and Lakewood in particular have fared well when applying for transportation dollars, a sentiment echoed by Brown, the regional council’s executive director.

Brown said as much to Caulfield in a letter last month.

“Since 1992, when PSRC began to distribute transportation funding to the region, the city of Lakewood has secured $23.4 million for projects ranging from $3.15 million for improvements to Bridgeport Way (2013-2014) to $1.76 million for sidewalks on Gravelly Lake Drive (2010 and 2014),” he wrote.

Brown also assured Caulfield that Pierce County is not an afterthought at his agency.

“For example, while Pierce County is 21 percent of the region’s population, it has only attracted 13 percent of the job growth over the past five years,” he wrote. “This isn’t lost to us at PSRC.

“As we have worked to complete our new Regional Economic Strategy, we have gathered data and incorporated feedback to ensure our work reflects not just thriving sectors like IT that are focused in King County, but also supports industries such as manufacturing, trade and logistics, and defense that are the strengths of Pierce County.”

Marchione declined to offer an opinion about whether it would be a good idea for Pierce County to leave the regional council, but the Redmond mayor did offer this:

“My sense is that most people in the region don’t live within county lines and expect leadership to have a regional perspective. In my experience, most of the time we work things out. If we need to make an adjustment, all ideas are welcome.”

That’s nice and all, some Pierce County leaders said, but King County members have the votes to impose their will if they want to.

“The process inherently favors Seattle-King County,” Morrison said. “They have the votes.”

They also point out the differences between transit friendly King County, which voted by a wide margin to approve the recent Sound Transit 3 light rail expansion, and Pierce County, which voted ST3 down.

“There’s a different mindset,” said Ron Lucas, the mayor of Steilacoom and a long-time and active representative on the regional council’s boards.

‘Many options’

Despite the griping, no one interviewed by The News Tribune expressed a desire to immediately cut ties with the Puget Sound Regional Council.

Many said they want to see what the Lakewood study concludes and debate its recommendations before arriving at a decision. The study is due in mid-May.

Going it alone would be a big step and involve a major process that would take time, much as Great Britain is discovering with Brexit.

Still, it’s a conversation worth having, they said.

“I think there are many options, and we should look at them,” Richardson said.

Morrison, Bonney Lake’s city administrator, said the Lakewood study could do some good even if Pierce County ultimately decides to stay a part of the regional council.

“It might prompt PSRC to look at itself at the very least and maybe make some internal changes,” he said.

Brown said he welcomes the review.

“We’ll let the city do its due diligence,” he said. “They have every right to ask if they’re getting a fair deal. They’re our members, and we want to do a great job making sure they’re getting their money’s worth.”

Right now, there’s a feeling in Lakewood, anyway, that they’re not.

“Sometimes, I get the feeling that PSRC is telling us what to do, not asking us,” Caulfield said. “Is that in the best interest of Pierce County? I know it’s not in the best interest of Lakewood.”

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam