Editorials

Hamburger backlash is the least of Sound Transit’s problems

The iconic triple-decker Dick’s Drive-In sign welcomes customers at the new location in Kent, which opened in December. There's a chance the restaurant will be displaced under one option being considered by Sound Transit.
The iconic triple-decker Dick’s Drive-In sign welcomes customers at the new location in Kent, which opened in December. There's a chance the restaurant will be displaced under one option being considered by Sound Transit.

Dick’s Drive-In has good reason to celebrate its 65th anniversary as a Seattle institution this week. It still attracts legions of fans as loyal as the teens who wore poodle skirts and Brylcreem to the original Wallingford location in 1954.

Long-suffering South Sounders had their own reason to celebrate in December, when a Dick’s opened in Kent — the family-owned company’s first foray south of Seattle.

No wonder Dick’s owners and customers are angry that Sound Transit has its eyes on the site. The land-hungry agency needs 30 acres of flat, accessible property for a transit maintenance facility.

News that the Kent burger joint might be uprooted has spread faster than a dab of mayo on a Dick’s Deluxe. Folks up there are as feisty about Sound Transit land grabs as folks down here are. The Puyallup Eagles club fought unsuccessfully to keep its lodge from being demolished to make way for a transit parking garage. Eastside Tacoma neighbors have seen a corner lot taken over this winter as a construction staging yard for the Link streetcar extension.

Yes, these are unwelcome intrusions of residential areas and business districts. Sound Transit must be held accountable to act neighborly, communicate thoroughly and play fair.

But acquiring property for a long-overdue mass-transit system is the price of progress, and it’s not easy in a region hemmed in by saltwater, mountains and suburban sprawl. Condemning private land is sometimes OK to fulfill a public good — as long as it comes with just compensation, like the $2.4 million the Puyallup Eagles were awarded for their lodge.

Get ready for the pace to accelerate locally over the next decade, as Sound Transit gobbles up right of way to connect light rail to Tacoma by 2030.

Dick’s devotees point out that an online poll in 2017 drew 170,000 votes, and 60 percent of respondents wanted the company to open its next restaurant south of Seattle. The people spoke loudly, and wisely.

Voting with one’s stomach, however, doesn’t have the legal force of a Regional Transit Authority ballot measure. A burger poll doesn’t trump the 668,000 Pierce, King and Snohomish residents who approved the Sound Transit 2 package in 2008, nor the 717,000 voters who approved ST3 in 2016.

What’s more, a month-old fast-food outlet is replaceable. And Dick’s will have plenty of suitors if it has to seek an alternate location south of Seattle. (That iconic triple-decker sign would look swell in Tacoma, don’t you think?)

All of this assumes Dick’s is sent packing, which is no sure thing. Sound Transit is evaluating at least five other parcels in the Kent area, and the list could grow — especially given the burger backlash. Whichever site is selected should be based first and foremost on the agency’s fiduciary duty to taxpayers, not fast-food aficionados.

Make no mistake: When using the power of eminent domain, Sound Transit must weigh the human costs, negotiate fairly and communicate fully — or risk inflaming further wrath against worthy projects. The agency has improved at this, partly because state law requires it. In 2007, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill requiring better notification before property is condemned; it resulted from Sound Transit’s bare-bones outreach to a South Tacoma couple whose land was needed for a parking lot.

Sound Transit has much to answer for these days. Number one: public angst caused by soaring ST3 car-tab fees based on inflated vehicle values. Delayed station openings and cost overruns have also grabbed headlines. Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, continues to push for directly elected oversight of the agency; he might have turned a corner by signing up two Democrats to cosponsor his legislation this year.

There are many reasons why Sound Transit deserves to be grilled. But displacing a burger joint — even a Dick’s Drive-In — would fall near the bottom of the menu. 

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