The South King County city, left off the regional light-rail network and with only two express bus routes, is asking Sound Transit to include $300 million in projects on the fall ballot.
People in Renton are paying about $23 million in Sound Transit taxes a year and have little to show for it after two decades.
Only two ST Express bus routes pass through the city, while commuter rail is reachable in neighboring Tukwila.
Now that other communities from Everett to Issaquah to West Seattle are on the list for light rail in the upcoming Sound Transit 3 ballot measure, Renton leaders say they want more high-capacity transit, too.
The City Council is pressing for two bus-rapid transit stations along Interstate 405, bus-carpool roadways and 2,700 park-and-ride garage spaces — for a total $300 million investment — instead of the scaled-down version described in a draft ST 3 package, released in March.
“To be very blunt about it, for the amount of money that we’ve put into Sound Transit, and have been for 20 years, we haven’t gotten value, and we will continue to pay for light rail to Redmond and Issaquah, and we won’t get anything,” Renton Councilmember Don Persson said at a Monday meeting.
Renton, home to more than 98,000 residents, seems the most vociferous among many cities sending final comments to the Sound Transit board of directors, which on June 23 will publish a 25-year, $50 billion package for the November ballot.
Woodinville is asking for buses to run every 10 minutes to Bothell, instead of the proposed 20 minutes. Kirkland says it needs high-capacity bus or rail, along with safer pedestrian and bike connections to I-405 BRT (bus-rapid transit) in the Totem Lake area, which is ripe for redevelopment. Down south in Pierce County, the mayors of Lakewood, Steilacoom and DuPont ask for more bus-rapid transit.
The full Eastside BRT corridor, stretching from Lynnwood to Burien using I-405 and Highway 518, could require $2.3 billion. Sound Transit in March proposed spending $341 million.
A letter from six Eastside cities recommends the bigger version, plus feeder buses linking neighborhoods to I-405 stations, to provide “the equivalent of light rail on rubber tires.” Freeway buses would use the new express toll lanes north of Bellevue, to be extended south of Bellevue using new state gas taxes.
“We always anticipated that we were going to get the Cadillac BRT,” Persson said Monday. “This whole watered-down BRT plan has kind of hit us as a surprise.”
Currently, Sound Transit Route 560 from SeaTac to Bellevue stops in downtown Renton, while the 566 from Auburn to Overlake serves downtown and one freeway stop. King County Metro Transit also serves Renton.
Sound Transit Chairman Dow Constantine declined an interview request for this story.
Sound Transit Board member Claudia Balducci of Bellevue, also a King County Council member, said that on Thursday she would propose Eastside amendments, which she would not detail, that include “additional investments in Renton.”
Renton City Councilmember Ruth Pérez said she caught the ear of Constantine and an aide Friday, outside an event in downtown Seattle.
“I was really surprised that Dow really listened,” said Pérez. She mentioned how she always thought Renton would get light rail, because of big employers — such as Boeing — and its affordable housing. “Executive Constantine said Sound Transit’s really good at getting the projects on time and on budget,” she recalled. “I said, all the money you won’t be spending on the Eastside, give it to Renton, because we deserve it.”
How did Renton fall behind?
Sound Transit’s first winning ballot measure, in 1996, earmarked $63 million for bus-carpool ramps to I-405, at Park Avenue and Talbot Road. Those sites turned out to be a poor fit with the state’s subsequent master plan, to widen the freeway someday. Governments changed their focus to I-405 ramps at North Eighth Street, next to Gene Coulon Park and the now-booming Renton Landing area.
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Meanwhile, Sound Transit condemned Renton land it needed to improve the Tukwila commuter-rail station a mile east of Southcenter. In a settlement, the agency agreed to set aside money for future Renton transit. Within the past year, Renton decided to replace its downtown transit center, which it considers a bulky hindrance to shopping and housing. The city also decided not to add cars and buses near the Landing, in favor of a South Renton megastation near the I-405/167 junction.
Fast-forward to this spring, when Sound Transit’s Eastside BRT proposal offered Renton only one of its two desired I-405 stations — a $117 million project in South Renton, with a bus hub plus 700 parking stalls, rather than the 2,000 requested by the city. And of that amount, $67 million is from the old settlement — in essence, the BRT investment Renton was already pledged in 1996.
“We’re kind of in the Sound Transit rain shadow,” said Gregg Zimmerman, Renton public works director. “Some of these communities have commuter rail, some have light rail. Really we on the south end, and Woodinville and Kirkland in the north end, are fairly reliant on bus-rapid transit.”
Geometry is partly to blame for Renton’s dilemma.
Its location, between East and South King County, sets it apart from the light-rail spine and its foreseeable branches, so communities like Renton become net donors to the rail program.
The city’s apartment clusters are dispersed and divided by a tangled road grid — making it impossible for any single rail line to reach most residents. But they’re ideal for RapidRide-type buses, and in fact Metro envisions adding a Renton Highlands loop, to go along with its existing F Line.
Those could feed freeway bus stations, so they wouldn’t cater solely to a park-and-ride clientele.
To Pérez, who joined the City Council in 2014, getting more is a matter of fairness to working people who must commute from Renton.
“I am the person who speaks for all those people who can barely speak English; they are afraid of the government and won’t talk to them. These people don’t have cars; they need public transit to go to work every day.”