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Fife Council chooses new mayor

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Fife City Council selected councilmember Winston Marsh to serve as mayor for the next two years, unseating former Mayor Tim Curtis with a 5-2 vote during the opening minutes of the Jan. 12 meeting. Curtis had been seeking reappointment to the largely ceremonial post, but only received support from newly elected councilmember Dierdre “Dee-Dee” Gethers.

Council members Brian Yambe, Kim Roscoe, Pat Hulcey and Lew Wolfrom backed Marsh. Following the vote, Curtis and Marsh simply switched seats and handed over the gavel.

“I am nervous as hell,” Marsh said. “I am very excited for the opportunity the council has given me.” The council then voted for the position of deputy mayor. That vote was unanimous since only current Deputy Mayor Hulcey received a nomination. Roscoe had tried to nominate Curtis, but he declined.

“I would just like to say that it was an honor to serve with Tim,” Hulcey said after the vote. “I support the City of Fife, and I also support the Puyallup Tribe, who I grew up with and know many members. I look forward to having a good year.”

Hulcey is now going into his third term as deputy mayor. He has served on the Council since 2010.

Marsh has been a Fife resident since 1998 and has served on the City Council since he was appointed to fill a vacancy when Gethers stepped down for personal reason in 2013, only to be elected last year by unseating long-time council member and former mayor Barry Johnson, in a down-to-the-wire election.

Johnson had encouraged Marsh to run for mayor, Marsh said, and so he began talking to other councilmembers about the idea months ago.

“When I was approached, I didn’t know I had the support,” Marsh said, noting that his run for mayor had nothing to do with Curtis. “It’s not an anti-Tim thing. It’s just a new direction.”

Important issues the council will face during his term will involve keeping State Route 167 on track, monitoring developments by the Port of Tacoma, the transition to the South Sound 911 emergency dispatch system and finding a solution for the on-going debate about opening a railroad crossing at 54th Avenue. The crossing was blocked by a fence as part of an agreement in the 1990s between the City of Fife and the Fife School District that led to the construction of Columbia Junior High School, which sits near the crossing. The growth of homes and businesses on the south side of the tracks, however, has brought many people in the neighborhood to call for it to be opened to car traffic. A crossing in the area – either for walkers or cars – is also needed since students who live on the south side of the tracks are simply ignoring the fence that blocks the tracks. Students have dug under, climbed over or simply cut through the fence to cross the tracks.

Rough estimates put the cost of a vehicle underpass at the 54th Avenue crossing at $24 million, and that couldn’t include a pedestrian walkway because of the lack of right of way and design restrictions. A pedestrian-only tunnel at 54th Avenue would cost about $10 million. That leaves the city looking at ways to fund and construct an $8 million to $12 million pedestrian bridge elsewhere, while also pondering options to pay for an underpass for cars.

The idea of simply reopening the at-grade street crossing at 54th Avenue is far from straightforward, since doing that would void an agreement between the city and school district as well as trigger opposition from the railroad and state regulators. The Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, which oversees railroad crossings, and the Union Pacific Railroad have deemed an at-grade crossing unsafe and not up to current design requirements. The current crossing is technically open, albeit blocked with a gate that is only accessible by first responders. The city had filed plans to open the at-grade crossing in 2009 only to withdraw the application after railroad and state regulators voiced their concerns. The railroad has since been given the greenlight by state officials to build a siding track in the area that will extend through the 54th Avenue crossing and mean more train cars will flow over the tracks. That makes an at-grade crossing even less likely because of safety concerns.

“I would personally like to see it open, but it should be opened safely,” Marsh said. “It is a bigger problem than just opening the road.”

Outside of the legal and regulatory troubles opening an at-grade crossing and the mounting cost estimates for an underpass, the discussion of options needs to include a broader look at increasing connections between Fife’s neighborhoods.