Showdown In Rainier Valley -- Despite One Group's Signs, Some Others Favor Street-Level Rail

It's not hard to see what's on the minds of residents and small-business owners along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

Bright yellow "Save Our Valley" yard signs dot the landscape like dandelions, a telling indication of the opposition to street-level light rail proposed from Boeing Access Road to South McClellan Street.

After Nov. 18, those yard signs may become meaningless.

On that date, the 18-member Sound Transit board will select a final light-rail route from SeaTac to the University District.

According to activists and transit officials, the vote will almost certainly call for surface rail through Rainier Valley, rebuffing calls from the Save Our Valley group for a 4.6-mile tunnel through the neighborhood.

Leaders of Save Our Valley say they are already preparing for the next phase in their fight for a $600 million tunnel: litigation against Sound Transit and the federal agencies that help fund it.

"Obviously, they are not going to approve a tunnel, so we have to look for alternatives," said George Curtis, a Save Our Valley board member.

"We knew we'd be lucky if we changed one vote on the (Sound Transit) board. Everyone knew this would be a court battle."

Besides yard signs, though, it's difficult to gauge how strongly the neighborhood supports Save Our Valley.

While Save Our Valley says its mailing lists includes 3,000 local residents, several well-respected groups such as South East Effective Development (SEED) have come out in support of street-level rail. Anything else, they say, would be a disservice to the valley.

In the coming months, who actually speaks for the Rainier Valley will be a critical issue as Sound Transit competes for federal transportation dollars. A protracted court battle and lingering bad feelings could hamper Sound Transit as it negotiates with the Federal Transit Administration for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tunnel was initially opposed

Two years before Save Our Valley was formed, residents and business owners considered what kind of system they wanted in their neighborhood.

In community meetings before and after the 1996 vote that approved the $3.9 billion transit plan, the consensus was clear, according to Darla Morton, executive director of the Rainier Chamber of Commerce.

A tunnel would be terrible.

At the time, residents were concerned with crime, and an underground system conveyed the mental image of the much-maligned New York subway, she said.

"With tunnels, people had a vision of trouble," said Morton. "People said, `It'll be over our dead bodies if you build a tunnel.' "

But as the plan became more specific, residents and business owners who hadn't attended earlier meetings became concerned with the impact of building a street-level system.

Last fall, several local residents began knocking on doors in the valley, asking people if they knew what was being planned for their neighborhood.

It wasn't a pretty picture.

Sound Transit would have to buy all or part of more than 300 properties in Southeast Seattle. By comparison, Sound Transit would have to purchase all or part of 49 properties from downtown to the University District.

There's an explanation for the discrepancy, said Sound Transit spokesman Clarence Moriwaki. In the University District, the proposed stations are located on property owned by the University of Washington. In the Rainier Valley, a single station often displaces several businesses.

But with a multibillion-dollar transit plan, there's plenty of room for miscommunication.

In a meeting last October, officials from Sound Transit told community residents that preliminary engineering studies showed a tunnel could not be built in Rainier Valley.

A neighborhood businessman, Frank Coluccio of Frank Coluccio Construction on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, stood up and told the officials they were wrong, and that Sound Transit could indeed build a tunnel.

Immediately after that meeting, several residents got together and decided to fight for an underground system.

Save Our Valley was born.

Despite an intensive leafleting and doorbelling campaign by Sound Transit to explain its plans for the valley, the agency wasn't always the first to reach local residents.

Luong Du heard about light rail last November when someone from Save Our Valley came by his boutique at 3111 Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

"I called all my friends. Nobody knew what was going on. It was amazing," he said.

Du has since learned that the proposed Sound Transit system would extend 10 feet into the front of his store. The rail lines would also prevent prospective customers driving north on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South from turning left directly into his parking lot.

Du isn't the only business owner who felt out of the loop.

It wasn't until one of their members carefully read the draft plan that Filipino Community Center officials realized their property along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South would be destroyed.

Confusion and fear, justified or not, helped fuel the Save Our Valley campaign.

Focus on fairness, safety

Save Our Valley is governed by a board of about 50 people. Attending three meetings is the only requirement to becoming a voting member.

Curtis would not say how the group is funded, other than to say all the contributions have come from neighborhood businesses.

Save Our Valley hammers on two main issues: fairness and safety.

It is not equitable that the richer neighborhoods north of downtown have tunnels while Rainier Valley is straddled with cost-saving surface rail, said Curtis.

Last month, Save Our Valley filed a civil-rights complaint with two federal agencies alleging that surface rail would have a disproportionately higher impact on the minority and low-income community.

The fact that Rainier Valley boasts a diverse population is without dispute.

There are roughly equal numbers of Asians, African-Americans and whites, but immigrants from Vietnam have made the most visible impression along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

There are about 150 Vietnamese-owned businesses along the 4.6-mile stretch of road.

The Vietnamese community is thriving, but it wasn't always so, said Joe Nguyen, owner of Asian Appliance and chairman of the Vietnamese Business Association of Rainier Valley.

Nearly 20 years ago, Rainier Valley was the only place refugees could afford to open a small shop. Through perseverance and hard work, many of these businesses are now well-established, and cater to customers who have money to spend on cell phones, CDs and silk dresses.

Sound Transit threatens all that, said Nguyen.

For immigrants who escaped the communist regime in Vietnam, it would be the second time a government power thwarted the dreams of private enterprise.

"We were forced to leave our livelihoods over there. We worked hard for 20 years. Now, we're forced to leave our livelihoods again. We have no more time to rebuild our lives," he said. "Light rail will make a lot of small businesses along Martin Luther King Way suffer."

`It has to do with topography'

But the notion that Rainier Valley would be shortchanged by surface rail doesn't ring true with several community groups in the area.

"This has nothing to do with racism. It has to do with topography," said Diane Davies, coordinator of the Rainier Valley Transit Advisory Council, a collection of 21 community groups.

The neighborhoods north of downtown get tunnels because they are located on hills, said Davies. Rainier Valley is slated for surface rail because it is relatively flat.

Like any other neighborhood along the light-rail route, Rainier Valley will no doubt suffer during construction. But when the line is finished, the street-level system could give the area an economic booster shot, she said.

"If you want economic development, you have to encourage at-grade rail," she said. "You have to have eyes on the street to see what's happening."

Some say it's a safety threat

When it comes to safety concerns, Save Our Valley boosters say Portland's MAX system provides a chilling example of the dangers of surface rail.

There are 33 miles of light rail in Portland, most of it at street level. Four people were killed on the tracks last year. That's led some Save Our Valley members to fear Rainier Valley could become a lethal corridor if surface rail becomes a reality.

But a close examination of each of the Portland incidents makes any rush to judgment difficult.

In one case, an intoxicated bicyclist dodged around lowered crossing gates. A second death occurred when a pedestrian was walking along a restricted area at 2:30 a.m. Two other people were struck while jaywalking across the track.

Nonetheless, Curtis maintains that light-rail running down the middle of Rainier Valley would put the neighborhood at risk, while trains north of downtown pass safely some 200 feet beneath residents' feet.

"Are kids going to be killed in the North End? No. It's probably going to be a black or Asian kid who is going to be the first one killed by this thing."

Dreams of development

That kind of talk strikes SEED Executive Director Earl Richardson as wildly exaggerated.

For 24 years, SEED has been trying to encourage economic development in the valley. It hasn't always been easy. Local business leaders say they have a hard time just getting the streets cleaned and persuading the city to put in more garbage cans.

With the prospect of five light-rail stations along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, Richardson envisions new retail, residential and commercial developments to take advantage of the crush of commuters.

While Save Our Valley wants Sound Transit to consider other options such as a monorail and is willing to wait until 2010 if it means an underground light-rail service, Richardson said the tunnel debate is over.

The valley will get surface rail, he said. The time for dissension is over.

"I don't think anyone speaks for the majority of residents in the valley. We don't, and Save Our Valley doesn't," he said. "We had a debate, now let's make it work. We need to make this the best system in the line. And damn it, this community deserves it."

Alex Fryer's phone-message number is 206-464-8124. His e-mail address is: