Sound Transit Driving Consensus Against All Odds

March 22, 2022
Compromise on this scale should be impossible; fortunately, no one told the project team.

The Sound Transit Operations and Maintenance Facility East (OMF East) 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, Wash., and several significant stakeholders. That’s the future. But it’s already done something quite unusual even in today’s NIMBY*-plagued world. It somehow managed to completely unite and galvanize a powerful and disparate opposition against the project almost instantly.  

“A [Bellevue] city council member who later became a county council member said, ‘I have to note that this project received an absolute unanimous rejection vote from the Bellevue City Council the first time it came up. In fact, it brought the council together in opposition, which I didn’t think was possible,’” explained Sound Transit New Facilities Project Director Jon Mihkels. “Later, she also spoke at the groundbreaking/ribbon cutting for the facility, except this time she said that the project had done ‘a complete 180-degree turn and the entire city council was in full support of it now.’ That never happens. So, you know this project is different.”  

He’s right. But the difference might not be 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 that fleet triple in size to 184 vehicles when light rail service extends to Northgate, Bellevue, Mercer Island, Redmond, Lynnwood, and Federal Way by 2023. Complete with 14 light rail vehicle service bays, it will operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  

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

“After examining 12 project sites, we chose three and took them through the draft environmental impact statement process. Then, we identified a preferred alternative. And that’s pretty much when all hell broke loose,” explained project manager Fran Wall, a vice president and civil engineer for design firm Huitt-Zollars. Huitt-Zollars served as the prime consultant in preparing the design-build procurement package for the Stantec-Hensel Phelps design-build team. “Every known stakeholder in the area was against the project. At issue was that we were going to take about 25 acres out of an area that Bellevue had rezoned for an approximately $4 billion mixed-use redevelopment that included prospective participants like Global Innovation Exchange, Facebook, retail, restaurants, etc. So, from the city of Bellevue to developers to the Children’s Hospital to the Cascade Bicycle Coalition to community equestrians, there were at least 50 different people and organizations that all lined up against the project.  

Sound Transit Environmental Planning Director Kent Hale agreed with Wall’s perspective, adding that “moving mountains is not an inaccurate way to characterize what we faced.”  

“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 that 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. Development around a light-rail station helps make both successful. But the approximately 25-acre site is pretty constrained. 

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

With opposition fierce and united, the project team went to work. Known for proactively engaging stakeholders, Sound Transit partnered with Huitt-Zollars and held a series of comprehensive workshops that included experts from the Urban Land Institute. The workshops covered virtually every stakeholder want and concern, from multi-million-dollar development to regional bike path 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 educated and aligned stakeholders, there was still another critical element.  

“We started out by doing a lot of listening, really understanding what the stakeholders’ concerns were,” said Huitt-Zollars Vice President and Director of Planning Christof Spieler. “We catalogued those concerns. And we also really understood the vision the city had, so that we could identify ways to approach a solution. We gained a lot of goodwill from the stakeholders early on because of that. We didn’t try to ram through a solution, but we listened to what they wanted, feared and needed. We came in with open minds, as did Sound Transit, much to their great credit. And we took the stakeholders’ concerns very seriously.”  

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

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

Spieler credits the charrettes, graphic displays and technical data in helping get everyone on board. And the stakes could not have been higher. Sound Transit had delivery already scheduled for 96 new light-rail vehicles, each costing between $4 to$5 million. Though they would be commissioned at an existing facility, OMF East would create the required space for commissioning and testing. In addition, Sound Transit’s full-funding agreement for the $2 billion Lynwood Link was tied to having OMF East’s final record of decision on its environmental process.  

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

“You really do need to pause and reflect on your partners’ positions and interests,” said Mihkels. “Then you need to look for those ways to align them or find win-win solutions. That’s opposed to approaching it as a quid-pro-quo battle or something to that effect. In a perfect Sound Transit world, we’d have spread the facility out more. But the facility is completely functional in its concise design. We couldn’t give that up. Knowing what the must-haves and desires for all parties was key.”  

Wall agrees.  

“We took the pitchforks and torches charging against us, found out what they wanted, and then helped Sound Transit resolve those issues so that everyone could come on board,” he said.  

At present, the OMF East facility is up and running, but not connected to Sound Transit’s system yet. In fact, its older light-rail vehicles are being trucked to the facility so that the new vehicles can be commissioned and tested in its current facility. Though not ideal, that was part of Sound Transit’s compromise.  

“We needed this facility to be done by a certain date. So, we had an open-door policy with stakeholders, complete transparency,” said Hale. “The city even sat in on our selection committee and attended all briefings. It was that level of involvement, but that’s exactly what helped get this done. We hid nothing. They heard the same things we did. We weren’t the 800-pound gorilla telling everyone what we wanted and for them to work around it.” 

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

*NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard 

About the Author

Arthur Schurr

Arthur Schurr is a New York-based freelance writer who reports on transportation infrastructure.