Railing at the train

Sound Transit's effort to buy property in the Rainier Valley is put on hold while the Supreme Court decides a major civil rights case.

LAST MONTH, a Sound Transit board member wrote an open letter to the beleaguered agency’s staff, suggesting that their problem was “a failure to communicate.” Out in some parts of the Rainier Valley, though, people have been hearing from the agency plenty.

“They come to bother me all the time,” says Du Luong, a 42-year-old Vietnamese immigrant whose tiny clothing store on Martin Luther King Way lies in the path of a planned light-rail station. “I kept saying I don’t have time to talk. I told them my wife is in the hospital, she’s having a baby.” Luong displays the letters he’s received from Sound Transit, one of which congratulates him on the upcoming addition to his family but requests yet again that he set up an appointment to discuss the purchase of his property. “They said they don’t want to wait, they have to buy it right now,” says Luong. “They said it doesn’t matter if we accept or no. They still want to buy it.”

But Luong and his wife don’t want to sell their 13-year-old shop, Tuyet Hanh Fashion, which stocks mostly petite sizes for a Vietnamese clientele. “After we sell, we don’t have any place to do business. Our customers are right here, our community is right here.” While Sound Transit is legally obligated to pay moving costs for dislocated businesses, Luong says that won’t keep his family afloat. “They’re only helping us to bring our stuff someplace else,” he says, gesturing toward the racks of blouses. “But after we move, we lose our customers and income. We’ll have to spend a lot of time to rebuild. How do we live then?”

Luong has refused to meet with the agency’s representatives. And he refused to sign a Right of Entry form that Sound Transit officials put before him, which would have granted the agency “reasonable access” to his property for a year in order to make appraisals, environmental assessments, etc. “I said, ‘Wait till the court,'” says Luong.

For the moment, the court has come to his aid.

Two weeks ago, a federal judge ordered a temporary halt to Sound Transit’s efforts to buy up property in the Rainier Valley. In a lawsuit brought by the group Save Our Valley, US District Judge Barbara Rothstein ruled that Sound Transit must cease “all acquisition activity . . . including negotiations and contacts with property owners such as letters, telephone calls, and personal visits.”

In the same ruling, Judge Rothstein handed a victory to Sound Transit, agreeing to put off a trial in the case until July, giving time for the US Supreme Court to issue a decision in a related case, which could undermine Save Our Valley’s claims.

Save Our Valley is made up of dozens of property owners and other Sound Transit detractors who object to the agency’s plan to run light-rail trains at street level through their mostly poor and ethnically diverse neighborhood. Scores of buildings in the Valley, such as Tuyet Hahn Fashion, are going to be condemned to make way for the project, while current plans call for relatively few property “takes” in the whiter, more affluent neighborhoods, where trains will run in a tunnel.

Save Our Valley’s suit contends that Sound Transit’s plan is a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act because it will cause “disproportionate impacts” on minority communities. “There are 96 full takes here,” says George Curtis of Save Our Valley. “That’s more than along the whole rest of the alignment. And we’re only four and a half miles.” (The total light-rail route is about 22 miles, from SeaTac to the U District.) Curtis also points to the “noise and visual impacts” of street-level trains, and he claims, “almost all the accidents and fatalities associated with light rail happen with at-grade.”

Other community leaders in the Rainier Valley, though, have been supportive of the street-level plan because they believe it will be better for overall pedestrian security along MLK, as well as more convenient. And Sound Transit has promised significant improvements in landscaping and lighting along the thoroughfare, which, in its present state, would be hard to call peaceful or pretty.

Sound Transit rejects the notion that its plan is discriminatory. The agency’s attorney, Desmond Brown, argues that while Sound Transit does need more property in the Valley than elsewhere, “the Valley receives more transportation benefits than anyone else.” He notes that stations occupy the most property and that four stations are planned along Martin Luther King Way, “more than we’re building in any other place.” Brown contends that tunnel construction in other Seattle neighborhoods is going to have “much more severe” impacts than the relatively modest disturbances caused by street-widening along MLK.

Of course, this isn’t working to Sound Transit’s advantage either: Just last week, a half-dozen community and business groups from Capitol Hill withdrew their support for light rail, claiming that protracted tunnel construction in and around Broadway “will cause irreparable harm to our community.”

SAVE OUR VALLEY’S lawsuit was originally scheduled to go to trial in March, but Sound Transit successfully petitioned for a delay of several months, arguing that serious cost concerns have thrown the light-rail alignment—and therefore the facts of the case—into doubt. Sound Transit recently jacked up the estimated price tag for rail by a billion dollars, or 50 percent more than originally proposed, and Sound Transit attorneys argued in their legal briefs that significant cost-saving changes could be on the way.

The attorneys even trumpeted some new destructive possibilities in Seattle’s whiter neighborhoods, suggesting, for example, that “a change in the alignments through the University District and Capitol Hill . . . could increase the number of takings in the North End by 100 percent to over 500 percent, and would include the taking of a 40-unit housing complex.” Judge Rothstein agreed that such changes would significantly alter the case and that a trial should wait until there is a final decision on the light-rail route.

The trial is also being delayed pending an upcoming decision from the US Supreme Court, one that could strip away the heart of Save Our Valley’s suit and take away the ability of such groups to file civil rights claims in the future. The case is legally handy for Sound Transit and rhetorically useful to Curtis, who has tried to embarrass Sound Transit for being in the same civil rights camp as the state of Alabama.

Under the Civil Rights Act, anyone can sue alleging outright discrimination. But when it comes to indirect discrimination, as in the “disproportionate impact” claim, the rules are less clear. The federal government is supposed to make sure that no recipient of federal money, such as a transit agency, creates discriminatory effects, and several circuit courts have said that private citizens can also file suit to enforce these rules. But the Supreme Court has never stated its views on the matter. Now it will.

When George Wallace’s home state passed a constitutional amendment in 1990 declaring English its official language, plaintiffs’ attorneys filed suit on behalf of a Mexican immigrant who couldn’t pass the English driver’s exam. They claimed that the English-only policy was having a “disproportionate impact” on non-English speakers. Lower courts ruled in their favor. But the state of Alabama has appealed, arguing that private individuals don’t have the right to file such a suit.

As Sound Transit requested, Judge Rothstein agreed to put off the Save Our Valley trial until a Supreme Court decision is issued in June.

“Sound Transit is basically rooting for the state of Alabama to destroy the environmental justice portion of the Civil Rights Act so they don’t have to have a trial on the merits of this case,” says Curtis.

But attorney Desmond Brown of Sound Transit argues that federal regulators are the right audience for Save Our Valley’s claims, not the courts. “This kind of investigation is more appropriately conducted by the federal agency that has trained expertise in evaluating how transportation systems ought to be implemented and who have the power to cut off all of our money if they find there is a problem,” he says. “That is a better system than having private parties, who may have any number of reasons to oppose a project, see if they can find some statistical disparity and use it as a basis to file a lawsuit.”

Brown points out that Save Our Valley originally filed a complaint with the Federal Transit Administration, which sent investigators out a year ago to look into the issue. Brown says that Curtis’ group dropped its complaint and filed a lawsuit instead, just before the FTA was preparing to issue its findings—which Brown claims would have exonerated Sound Transit. (The FTA’s civil rights officer, who headed up the investigation, did not return a call from Seattle Weekly seeking comment.)

Says Curtis of the FTA investigation: “We didn’t think it was a clean process.”

Sound Transit plans to appeal Judge Rothstein’s ruling, asking that the agency at least be allowed to continue discussions with those few property owners who want to sell. But Curtis worries that if Sound Transit takes over properties like Tuyet Hahn many months before construction is to begin, it will lead to a lot of empty storefronts, and Judge Rothstein appeared to agree: “The court is persuaded,” she wrote, “that Sound Transit’s pursuit of ‘voluntary’ acquisitions could very well result in serious harm to the community.”