Just in the past two days, the political tides have shifted toward putting Sound Transit 2 on the ballot this November, instead of in 2010. Credit goes to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, current president of the Sound Transit board, for some aggressive courting of Snohomish County. Some think Nickels may have made too many concessions in his eagerness to get the package, so the new majority might crumble before the crucial board vote next Thursday, July 24.
King County Council member Dow Constantine, a Sound Transit board member and staunch supporter of a 2008 vote, said on Tuesday, July 15, that he thought the chances of getting to the ballot this fall were 50-50. The next day, he was "pretty convinced there will be 14 to 16 yes votes," with 12 being the supermajority needed on the 18-person Sound Transit board. Some other nose-counters aren't that optimistic. With Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon reportedly winning a tough poker game with Nickels and swinging into the yes column, the key votes are now with Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg and King County Council member Pete von Reichbauer.
For months, there have been only about 10 firm votes for the 2008 ballot date. At first, Sound Transit was going to go with a big package of 50 miles of additional rail transit, finishing the job, but the time to complete it and cost of that proposal sank the idea. Then there was a $10 billion to $12 billion proposal, Sound Transit Lite, with fewer years of collecting taxes but not much rail reaching close to Pierce or Snohomish counties. Snohomish firmly rejected this version. Lately has come the goldilocks just-right compromise of $15 billion and 15 years [164K PDF]. The package would extend light rail north to Lynnwood, south to Federal Way, and east across Lake Washington to Bellevue/Overlake, as well as augment express bus service and Sounder commuter rail.
Now the moment of truth is approaching — first a Sound Transit finance committee meeting today, where the cost of Nickels' concessions will become an issue, and then the July 24 vote by the Sound Transit board. Reardon would probably bring along another swing vote, Deanna Dawson of the Edmonds City Council. That leaves probably three firm no votes in King County Executive Ron Sims, Everett City Council member Paul Roberts, and state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond (reflecting Gov. Chris Gregoire's veiled opposition). Von Reichbauer says he's "still willing to listen" but has been in the no column. Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg says, "If we get to 15 or 16, we should put it on the ballot and I would be one of the votes for it." If von Reichbauer is the fourth no vote, Ladenburg would be the 14th. Hmmm.
Complicating the Ladenburg situation is his race for state attorney general, in which incumbent Rob McKenna, long a rail skeptic, is expected to wrap a yes vote by Ladenburg around his neck. Gregoire expects the same from gubernatorial challenger Dino Rossi, which is why she is said to be determined to block the vote in 2008. Nickels, still estranged from the governor over the Alaskan Way Viaduct, is paying her no heed on this score.
Both Rossi and Gregoire are playing cat and mouse on the issue. Rossi is using one of his patented dodges of big issues, telling The Seattle Times' Mike Lindblom that it's a local matter for which "I don't even have an idea what they're interested in doing." (Apparently, Rossi has joined the folks who no longer read local newspapers.) Gregoire told Lindblom she's leaving the decision on the ballot measure to her transportation secretary and would decide later on whether to support it, if it emerges. Insiders report that the governor is fighting hard to prevent the fall vote.
While going to the ballot takes a super-majority of 12 of 18 votes, a board vote of 15-3 or so would make the rail advocates feel a lot better about chances for passage of ST2. One ST2 supporter, Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin, said earlier this week that if the board is closely split, and particularly if two or three county executives oppose it, he would be worried about whether the bond issue could pass, calling it "really challenging." Constantine adds that nearly all of the Sound Transit board members favor rail; "the problem is that each member wants it now, and everywhere, which we simply can't afford."
Nickels has been focusing on Snohomish County, and according to several Sound Transit sources, he has swung them over by offering to cap the costs of the city's First Hill streetcar connector, making Seattle responsible for anything above $120 million; increasing bus service to Snohomish while it waits for rail to arrive; and putting more North King County money into the link from Northgate to Lynnwood that Snohomish County was earlier going to fund more generously. "Nickels gave Reardon the kitchen sink," fumes one Sound Transit board member, wondering if the Seattle City Council will go along.
The Sound Transit board has been tied in knots over whether to put its next phase before the voters in 2008 or 2010. The case for the 2008 vote goes this way:
- High gas prices are making transit more popular.
- A high turnout of Obama Democrats (particularly younger voters) will swell the transit vote.
- Waiting until 2010 risks having the Legislature raid some of the dedicated taxes of Sound Transit, particularly to pay for mega projects like the Evergreen Point Bridge and the Viaduct.
- And delay will cause some key staffers at Sound Transit to look for more exciting jobs.
The argument for 2010 has these points:
- The first 13.9-mile phase of Central Link light rail will open in 2009, so the public can experience the pleasures of modern transit and develop an appetite for more.
- Fears of a 2008 recession will make voters cautious about spending issues.
- Politicians in current races (such as Gregoire and Ladenburg, as well as legislative candidates) can avoid the political heat.
- Some other big issues such as the Viaduct and tolling might be resolved by then.
- Polling has not been very reassuring for the 2008 vote (about 50 percent favor the concept).
- Opponents this year are going to be well funded (primarily by Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman and others who want more money for buses and roads) and have plenty of arguments to throw at the ST2 team.
- Lastly, the campaign for ST2 is very late in getting started, having little organization or money so far. A defeat in November, coming after the demoralizing defeat of Proposition 1 last year, could be fatal to ever building out a rail system.
In the end, Sound Transit was backed into a political corner. Time would be its enemy if it waits until 2010 and loses momentum. Surviving two more legislative sessions, with all the other needs out there and no real way to pay for many of the roads projects, would put Sound Transit's generous dedicated tax sources at grave risk. Besides, advocates of a comprehensive transit authority for the region, such as cellular billionaire John Stanton and former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, will be pushing for their plan, backed up by a threat of an initiative this time. Such a plan, by merging Sound Transit into many other bus agencies, would likely divert still more of Sound Transit's funding base and autonomy. Lastly, there is the fear that the next governor could be a conservative Republican, Dino Rossi.
That governor's race, currently very tight in the polls, may have driven Gregoire into opposing a fall vote on ST2, which would force her to take a stand. It's a curious political decision, given Gregoire's need to energize her Democratic base in King County. Instead, she mostly gives them promises, fearful of coming down on one side of the big issues and fearful of Rossi's attack on her big spending — inevitable regardless of what she does. The danger is that King County and Seattle voters, who will be excited about voting for Barack Obama and for transit, will be miffed at the transit-tepid, decision-averse governor and protest by not voting for her. As in 2004, her political problem is that she, unlike most Democrats, does not come out of the King County stronghold with a commanding lead.
The political downside for Nickels is this: In gaining more transit for Seattle, and in burnishing his environmental credentials, he may have further strained his relationship with County Executive Sims and Gov. Gregoire. Feelings between the three are already very raw. It's not easy to see how Nickels wins many other battles with them, such as over 520 and the Viaduct, given the animosity.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!