Court rules against Qwest for utility relocation costs on Sound Transit's Tacoma Link light rail project

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A U.S. District Court has ruled that Qwest Communications-and not Sound Transit-is responsible for the cost of moving Qwest's telecommunications equipment out of publicly-owned rights-of-way. Qwest had initially refused to comply with repeated requests from the City of Tacoma and Sound Transit to move the utilities, which are located at no cost under city streets in Tacoma.

Qwest (the plaintiff) sued Sound Transit earlier this year in an attempt to force taxpayers to pay for Qwest's relocation costs in Tacoma, where the 1.6-mile Tacoma Link light rail system through downtown is under construction. Sound Transit and the City of Tacoma filed a counter-suit to prevent the corporation from further delaying progress on the Tacoma Link light rail line and to force the company to pay its own relocation costs.

The ruling, from U.S. District Court Judge Marsha J. Pechman, was issued today. It said, "In the final analysis, for the Court to adopt plaintiff's position raises the spectre of allowing telecommunications providers, through their refusal to pay relocation costs required by the legitimate exercise of local police power, to dictate whether publicly-mandated projects can go forward. Such veto power given to an entity would be bad policy for the public at large." It concluded that Tacoma is "authorized to require relocation" and "to require plaintiff to bear the cost of that relocation."

"We are delighted that the taxpayers will not have to subsidize Qwest's relocation from public land it had been occupying at no cost," Ron Sims, King County Executive and Sound Transit Board Chair, said.

Sound Transit began discussions about Tacoma-area utility relocation with Qwest (then U.S. West) several years ago. Early in 1999, Sound Transit and Qwest agreed in principle that a solution costing approx. $400,000 was feasible, but Qwest subsequently went ahead with design work on a more costly ($2.4 million) plan for a complete replacement and upgrade of their equipment.

Last November, Sound Transit offered to submit to binding arbitration to determine who should pay the relocation costs, but Qwest declined. Sound Transit had subsequently agreed to mediation if Qwest agreed to begin moving its utilities immediately. In an effort to keep the mediation offer and the project moving, Sound Transit offered to set aside $2.4 million (the entire amount Qwest claimed it would cost to relocate utilities in Tacoma) in the event the mediation is decided in Qwest's favor. Qwest agreed to the mediation, but then sued one week before it was due to begin.

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