School might have to jump out of the way for light rail

This playfield belonging to Mark Twain Elementary School will be used for new light rail tracks by Sound Transit, if a property swap is negotiated. The school would be relocated to the Redondo Heights Park & Ride lot on Pacific Highway South.
This playfield belonging to Mark Twain Elementary School will be used for new light rail tracks by Sound Transit, if a property swap is negotiated. The school would be relocated to the Redondo Heights Park & Ride lot on Pacific Highway South.

The $1.5 billion extension of Sound Transit’s light rail line to Federal Way has run into a problem: an elementary school named after an iconic American writer.

The regional transit agency’s preferred route for the line south from the new Angle Lake Station in SeaTac to the Federal Way Transit Center would cross the campus of Mark Twain Elementary School.

School district officials and school supporters think that’s a bad idea and have told Sound Transit so.

But a deal in the works might alleviate the trouble by relocating the school to a different property altogether. That would involve a land swap between Federal Way Public Schools and King County Metro, a proposal just in its infancy.

Still, school and transit officials are optimistic.

“We feel like this could be a win-win for Federal Way Public Schools and Sound Transit and would allow light rail to pass through the current 272nd Street alignment without adversely impacting our scholars at Mark Twain Elementary,” Superintendent Tammy Campbell wrote to the school’s parents and staff last month. “Of course, there are still more implications to consider as we pursue this option.”

One of those “implications” is the need for money to rebuild Mark Twain Elementary at a new location. That would depend on school district voters approving a construction bond measure in 2018.

The size and shape of that measure, which would raise money for projects across the district, is still being drawn up, said Kassie Swenson, a spokeswoman for Federal Way Public Schools.

But money for a new Mark Twain Elementary would be in the mix, Swenson said.

7.8-mile extension

Voters in the Sound Transit taxing district twice have approved plans and new taxes to extend light rail south to Federal Way and ultimately on to Tacoma.

After years of study, the Sound Transit board recently approved the preferred route to take the line from the Angle Lake Station at Pacific Highway South and South 200th Street to the Federal Way Transit Center near South 320th Street and 23rd Avenue South.

The 7.8-mile extension would run roughly adjacent to Interstate 5 after leaving Angle Lake, veer west to a station near Highline College, return to I-5 to another stop at the Star Lake Park & Ride at South 272nd Street and then on to the Federal Way Transit Center.

Sound Transit staff recommended that route over an alignment along U.S. 99, said Cathal Ridge, who is overseeing the extension.

There were several reasons for that, including fewer disruptions to businesses, fewer effects on in-ground utilities and some cost factors, Ridge said.

Sound Transit expects a daily ridership of 36,500 on the extension when it opens in 2024, records show.

“Identifying a route gives us a clear path forward for bringing light rail to Federal Way by 2024,” Peter von Reichbauer, a King County Council member and Sound Transit board member, said last month.

“In just a few years’ time,” he said, “the people of South King County will enjoy the convenience of light rail that thousands of other regional commuters already enjoy.”

The 550 or so students at Mark Twain Elementary were set to pay a price for that convenience, however.

‘Adverse impact’

The preferred alignment would cross part of the school’s campus at 2450 Star Lake Road. Specifically, it would cross a portion of the playfields that flank the school buildings.

The fields are used for recess and other school events as well as recreational youth soccer.

Sound Transit studied two options for getting its trains across the campus, an elevated option and another called “a lidded trench” that would have carried the trains below grade.

Sound Transit staff members recommended the elevated option.

It would be much less costly and less complicated to build, said Ridge, pointing out that issues with groundwater in the area might necessitate special construction techniques and expensive ongoing maintenance for the trench option.

The savings in construction costs alone could be $30 million, according to Sound Transit records.

Still, school district officials and Mark Twain Elementary supporters were not keen on the idea.

“We at Federal Way Public Schools are obligated to oppose any proposed project that would create an adverse impact on the learning environment of our scholars, no matter how worthy,” Campbell wrote on the district’s website Jan. 5.

“And because the above-ground option would run straight through the back end of the Mark Twain Elementary playfield, causing constant disruption and distraction for our students through the entire school day, we strongly oppose this option in favor of the tunnel option.”

Aida Sanchez-Vela, whose church sponsors events at and provides mentors to the school, said parents and teachers were worried about the noise and visual distraction of having an elevated train running near the school every 10 minutes.

“We didn’t think it would be conducive to learning,” Sanchez-Vela said.

School district officials and Mark Twain Elementary supporters were prepared to take their case to the Sound Transit board last month.

“It’s just common sense: Trains and elementary schools do not mix,” Campbell said in her website letter.

“The sole reason for the above-ground option is cost: It is less expensive to build than the tunnel option. But we do not believe that the health of our scholars’ educational environment should be traded for cost savings on a balance sheet.”

Then, at the 11th hour, the land-swap proposal emerged.

A solution?

The deal would entail the school district transferring ownership of the Mark Twain Elementary site to King County Metro in exchange for that agency’s Redondo Park & Ride property, which is on Pacific Highway South just south of South 272nd Street.

School district officials are warm to the idea because it would allow them to move the 49-year-old school away from the light rail and provide additional room for expansion.

“The school, in common with other schools with the FWPS, has more students than is optimal for the desired learning environment,” according to a memorandum of agreement Sound Transit, the school district and Metro signed last month.

Sound Transit is receptive to the idea because it allows the agency to save money and avoid a public-relations headache.

“This is a potential win-win-win for all parties involved,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said last month. “Extraordinary creativity and collaboration between the Federal Way Public School District, King County Metro and Sound Transit led to this very positive solution.”

Metro is willing to consider the swap because it would allow it to offload an underperforming Park & Ride.

Agency records show the 697-spot lot, which serves Metro’s Rapid Ride A Line and Route 190, had an average daily use rate of about 10 percent in 2016.

“By working together, we improve mobility for the region, a key goal of the Metro Connects long-range plan,” said Jeff Switzer, a spokesman for the agency.

Taking over the Mark Twain Elementary site also would give Metro an opportunity to work with Sound Transit on a “transit-oriented development” plan.

That could include building residential and retail properties near the South 272nd Street light rail station, something Sound Transit board members find desirable.

Work ahead

There is much work still to be done for a successful outcome.

The memorandum of agreement requires only that the three agencies “work diligently and in good faith” toward the land swap.

“This MOA does not obligate any of the parties to enter into a real property transaction,” the agreement states. “Any proposed transaction will be submitted to the parties’ respective legislative bodies for such review and approval as may be required by law.”

And there are the school district voters to consider.

Over the past decade, Federal Way voters have had a tendency first to say “no” to large school capital measures before later saying “yes,” as they did in 2012, when a $60 million levy to rebuild Federal Way High School, among other things, was put before them.

If a deal can’t be struck?

“If the land swap is unsuccessful, Sound Transit is responsible for mitigation of the construction, noise and vibration impacts for Mark Twain Elementary,” school district spokeswoman Swenson said.

The clock is ticking. Sound Transit hopes to begin construction on the new line in 2019.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam