Sound Transit Driving Consensus Against All Odds

The Sound Transit East (OMF East) Operations and Maintenance Facility is unique in many ways, but one really stands out. Yes, it will be a state-of-the-art facility that will transform Sound Transit, the City of Bellevue, Washington, and several important stakeholders. It’s the future. But he’s already done something quite unusual, even in today’s NIMBY*-ridden world. He somehow managed to completely unite and galvanize powerful and disparate opposition against the project almost instantly.

“A [Bellevue] member of the city council who later became a member of the county council said: ‘I should note that this project received an absolute unanimous vote of rejection from Bellevue City Council the first time it appeared. It actually brought the council together in opposition, which I didn’t think was possible,” explained Sound Transit New Facilities Project Manager Jon Mihkels. “She later also spoke at the facility’s grand opening, except this time she said the project had gone ‘a full 180 degree turn and the whole city council was on it’. was fully pressing now.” That never happens. So you know this project is different.

He is right. But the difference was perhaps not expected. A $449 million design-build project, the LEED Gold-certified OMF East will service and store up to 96 light rail vehicles, approximately half of Sound Transit’s fleet, and help triple that fleet to 184 vehicles when light rail service expands to Northgate, Bellevue, Mercer Island, Redmond, Lynnwood and Federal Way by 2023. Featuring 14 light rail service platforms, it will operate 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

That alone is remarkable. But that’s not what sets the establishment apart. As with all real estate, it was location, as the optimal site for OMF East complicated matters.

“After reviewing 12 project sites, we chose three and guided them through the process of drafting environmental impact statements. Next, we identified a preferred alternative. And that’s about when all hell broke loose,” explained project manager Fran Wall, vice president and civil engineer at design firm Huitt-Zollars. Huitt-Zollars served as the prime consultant in the preparation of the design-build procurement case for the Stantec-Hensel Phelps design-build team. “All known players in the region were against the project. The problem was that we were going to remove about 25 acres from an area that Bellevue had rezoned for an approximately $4 billion mixed-use redevelopment that included potential participants like Global Innovation Exchange, Facebook, retail, restaurants , etc from the city of Bellevue to the Children’s Hospital developers to the Cascade Bicycle Coalition to community riders, there were at least 50 different people and organizations who all lined up against the project.

Sound Transit’s director of environmental planning, Kent Hale, agreed with Wall’s view, adding that “moving mountains is not an inaccurate way to characterize what we’re up against.”

“With NIMBY projects, there are rarely easy answers. The monumental challenge with Bellevue was its transit-oriented development (TOD) vision for the BelRed corridor,” said Hale. “They wanted the light rail station as part of this, but weren’t too keen on losing prime development land and replacing it with a maintenance facility next to their development site. . And that makes perfect sense. The development around a light rail station contributes to the success of both. But the site of about 25 acres is quite small.

“The south end is closest to the light rail station. The northern end is surrounded mostly by wetland. And the west side is a former BNSF rail corridor, now a regional rail corridor and bike path. Huitt-Zollars essentially pushed the maintenance facility element as far north as possible to create as much workable space on the south end for the TOD without affecting the wetland. But we also had to deal with perceptions of what a rail maintenance facility would look like. Only through a concerted effort to educate and align everyone can we achieve this,” Hale noted.

Facing fierce and united opposition, the project team got to work. Known for proactively engaging stakeholders, Sound Transit partnered with Huitt-Zollars and hosted a series of comprehensive workshops featuring experts from the Urban Land Institute. The workshops covered virtually every stakeholder wish and concern, from multi-million dollar development to regional bikeway integrity to open space advocacy. Then they walked the site with relevant stakeholders to give them a visceral sense of the discussion. While the charrettes raised awareness and aligned stakeholders, there was yet another critical element.

“We started by listening a lot, really understanding what the stakeholders’ concerns were,” said Huitt-Zollars Vice President and Chief Planning Officer Christof Spieler. “We have listed these concerns. And we also really understood the city’s vision, so we could identify ways to approach a solution. We gained a lot of goodwill from stakeholders early on because of this. We didn’t try to find a solution at full speed, but we listened to what they wanted, feared and needed. We arrived with an open mind, as did Sound Transit, to their credit. And we took stakeholder concerns very seriously.

It worked. Using the charrettes and workshops to examine the site and each stakeholder’s requirements, the project team made startling discoveries that led to crucial design decisions.

“For example, the most valuable land in terms of development wasn’t really the land we needed for the trains,” Spieler explained. “We realized that the topography of the site could actually help us, as part of the site was elevated and could minimize impacts from trains and essentially hide the maintenance facility from view, providing natural attenuation of noise and view. Through an analysis of operations and economic development and a series of realignments, we were able to meet all stakeholder requirements. Of course, there was a compromise, but we managed to get everyone to buy into the design. The core of the solution, however, was really about listening, understanding, and respecting what everyone wanted, and then showing them how they could get it.

Spieler credits the carts, graphical displays, and technical data for getting everyone on board. And the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Sound Transit had already scheduled delivery of 96 new light rail vehicles, each costing between $4 million and $5 million. Although they are commissioned in an existing facility, OMF East would create the space required for commissioning and testing. Additionally, Sound Transit’s full funding agreement for the $2 billion Lynwood Link was tied to the final registration of OMF East’s decision on its environmental process.

For Bellevue, in addition to 700,000 to 800,000 developable square feet, the city was also seeking 6.5 acres for two affordable housing projects, commercial office space, retail and market-to-market housing. The city also relied on the development and the light rail line to generate revenue and help complete its BelRed Corridor plan. Each stakeholder had vital interests straddling OMF East and its resolution.

“You really need to pause and think about your partners’ positions and interests,” Mihkels said. “Then you have to look for those ways to align them or find win-win solutions. This contrasts with approaching it as a quid-pro-quo battle or something like that. In a perfect Sound Transit world, we would have extended the installation further. But the facility is completely functional in its concise design. We couldn’t let that go. Knowing what the must-haves are and what all parties want was key.

Wall agrees.

“We took the pitchforks and torches that were charging us, found out what they wanted, and then helped Sound Transit fix those issues so everyone could get involved,” he said.

Currently, the OMF East facility is operational, but not yet connected to Sound Transit’s system. In fact, its former light rail vehicles are trucked to the facility so that new vehicles can be commissioned and tested at its current facility. While not ideal, it was part of Sound Transit’s compromise.

“We needed this facility to be completed by a certain date. So we had an open door policy with stakeholders, full transparency,” Hale said. “The city even sat on our selection committee and attended all the information sessions. It was that level of involvement, but that’s exactly what helped get things done. We haven’t hidden anything. They heard the same things we did. We weren’t the 800-pound gorilla telling everyone what we wanted and they had to get around it.

A compromise on this scale should be impossible. Luckily, no one told the OMF East project team, so they just delivered the impossible.

* NIMBY: Not in my garden

Melvin Z. Madore