Fixing our big flat tire
by Ted Van Dyk
The Sound Transit board will decide on Thursday, July 24, whether to submit a multibillion-dollar ballot measure to voters this fall. It mainly would fund a three-county extension beyond Seattle of a light rail line that is not yet completed in the city.
Meantime, we are embroiled in wrangling about plans and financing of replacement or repair of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and replacement of the Highway 520 bridge, as well as Mayor Greg Nickels’ expensive proposal for Mercer Mess reconfiguration (which would not relieve traffic congestion) to make the road network more compatible with Vulcan’s South Lake Union development.
All of this at a time of economic stress, falling state and local tax revenue, and increasing pressure on state and local business and personal taxpayers.
Here is an agenda for structural and policy change which would address these matters.
First, the Sound Transit board should not submit a ballot measure this fall. Then Gov. Chris Gregoire and state House Speaker Frank Chopp actively should sponsor the Stanton-Rice commission proposal [2.2 MB PDF] that the Sound Transit board be directly elected, and thus accountable to voters and taxpayers, rather than appointed as at present. Gregoire and Chopp have made favorable statements regarding the Stanton-Rice proposal. Now they need to move from talk to leadership.
Second, the new elected board should undertake a first-principles review of Sound Transit plans and priorities. Its Sounder service has proven horrendously expensive while carrying far fewer passengers than originally projected. The light rail system is billions over the promised pricetag, years behind construction schedule, and missing several stations from the plan voters initially approved. Meantime, the agency has shortchanged less expensive bus and bus rapid transit options which would make an immediate difference in addressing area congestion. Now is the time for a timeout and fundamental review. (I have little doubt that such a review would result in a light rail cutback, perhaps even termination, and investing of greater resources in more cost-effective transit alternatives). After the review, the board should consider the content of a 2010 ballot measure.
Gregoire and Chopp, before the fall election, should throw their weight behind specific Alaskan Way Viaduct and 520 bridge design and funding proposals. The City of Seattle, Port of Seattle, King County, and others’ input should be heard and assessed. But the governor and Legislature should do their jobs and make the necessary decision. Both the viaduct and bridge are state highways. The present punt-and-delay strategy is eating time and money. Both arteries remain public safety risks.
The Seattle City Council should demand a reconsideration of Nickels’ Mercer Mess plan. It also should put on hold any further discussion of trolley-line expansion. It should undertake a review of the risks and expense attendant to Sound Transit’s Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill tunneling. It should make individual and collective input into the Alaskan Way Viaduct and 520 Bridge issues. But is should — as should the mayor — recognize that these are state-level decisions which rest with state officials.
Finally, to help avoid future transportation and other snafus, a ballot measure should be submitted in 2009 to elect Seattle City Council members by district rather than at-large. Almost all major cities elect their city councils by district. If submitted in a mayoral-election year, the measure would stand a real chance of passage and would serve as a rallying point for Seattleites who believe that major city policy is now being made by big-time developers and campaign contributors via their mayoral/City Council puppets. We are long overdue in restoring power to neighborhoods and communities which now get a brushoff on matters such as transportation decisionmaking, which directly affect their citizens’ pocketbooks and daily lives.
Not possible under the Seattle Way, you say? Sure it is. This kind of action is possible in any jurisdiction, anywhere in the United States.
Here is a secret about elected officials. Almost all of them are more greatly motivated by fear of disapproval, by those with political money and juice, than by a positive motivation to get things done on behalf of ordinary constituents. When voters and taxpayers get angry and demand action, the equation changes. It particularly can change in an election year such as this.