Sizing up the Proposition 1 vote, precinct by precinct

Voters were resisting a plan that was Seattle-centric and premised on the expectation that most people would become affluent professionals working in dense urban settings. This skeptic of rail transit also suggests how to recraft the proposal.
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Voters were resisting a plan that was Seattle-centric and premised on the expectation that most people would become affluent professionals working in dense urban settings. This skeptic of rail transit also suggests how to recraft the proposal.

Precinct-level maps of the vote on Proposition 1, the roads-and-transit measure defeated last month in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, as well as census demographic data reveal a lot about the region's urban politics. Here are a few conclusions I would draw.

The package was perceived and voted on as a rail project, with the roads part having little measurable effect. Areas benefiting from road projects were as opposed to the measure as areas that wouldn't benefit. Sound Transit also lost the tradeoff between a larger area that would generate greater tax revenue and a smaller, more-urbanized area that might have supported the project. Support was typically only 30 percent to 40 percent in the outer half or more of the regional transit authority (RTA) district.

People voted self interest, geographically. Denser, transit-dependent areas and, in many cases, areas near proposed rail transit stations tended to vote yes, while less-dense and auto-dependent areas far from proposed rail lines – at least three-quarters of all precincts – voted no, by as much as 10 to 1. Areas with middle-class families, especially with workers in manufacturing, transportation, or construction, voted no, partly because of their location (Pierce, Snohomish, and South King counties) but probably also because of the proposal's dependence on regressive sales and vehicle taxes.

The city neighborhoods of West Seattle, Magnolia, and Ballard must still be angry over the demise of their transit plan, the Seattle Monorail Project. "New Urbanist" areas – that is, urban village precincts dominated by apartments, renters, and condos – voted yes, while areas with mainly single-family homes were almost universally negative, even in the city of Seattle. Downtown Tacoma residents love their train and voted for Prop 1.

Based on known demographics from census data, areas of young, unmarried, "romantic idealists" voted yes, but older married folks, especially those with children, were skeptical and fearful of the long-term tax burden. Native-born Washingtonians were much more negative than migrants from other states, or the foreign-born. The poor and the unemployed were more supportive than the employed and more affluent, perhaps because they are transit dependent or because they are more likely to be younger and unmarried.

Here is the percent yes vote by some cities:

Mercer Island 52 Edmonds 49 Seattle, Shoreline, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, Redmond 47 Mill Creek 46 Bellevue 45 Federal Way, Issaquah, Renton, Everett 43 Burien, Sammamish 42 Kirkland, Mukilteo 41 Kent, Burien 40 Marysville 39

My conclusions are based on a statistical analysis of a sample of 200 precincts, about one-quarter of them voting over 60 percent in favor of Prop 1, about one-quarter voting less than 30 percent in favor, and about half voting at the average support level of 44 percent to 47 percent. Since we don't have good census data by current precincts, I matched the sample precincts to the closest U.S. census block group.

Essentially, middle-class families who own houses or would like to, who fill the large majority of jobs in services, transport, and industry, and who are mainly outside the city of Seattle used this vote as a chance to resist a Seattle-centric plan and a long term tax burden perceived as benefiting mainly affluent professionals in or commuting to Seattle.

Put another way, Proposition 1, like so much planning in the region, was conceived on the assumption that people were, will be, or should be affluent professionals who live in dense urban villages and work in large urban centers. But of course the real world is not like that. The majority of people still live and will continue to live in families with children for part of their lives; they want to live in homes, not apartments or condos; and they do not and could not work in dense centers.

It would be a colossal mistake for the Democratic party leadership to identify with the losing yes position. The majority of Democratic-leaning precincts voted no, including mine, which is 95 percent Democratic. I am only one of many pretty far-left Democrats who want to remind the party leadership that the suburban worker family is as vital as the urban professional, and to suggest that the role of parties has historically been to respond to the needs and goals of constituents, not to chastise them for their failure to become New Urbanists.

In light of these findings, my advice to Sound Transit would be as follows:

  • Vote on a transit measure separately. Devise a much smaller rail component. The two corridors of support are to Northgate and to Bellevue, but not to Pierce county or to Snohomish county. I 90 would be an ideal corridor for a bus rapid transit alternative, reserving a future SR520 for possible rail. The majority component of a revised package must be transit, but not rail; perhaps a combination of enhanced bus transit, but also consideration of local to regional circulators.
  • Put effort into raising the capacity of the freeway and arterial system to handle improved and faster bus transit. Do not rely on raising the sales tax. Wait until a couple years of operation of rail to SeaTac. If it as popular as, say the Minneapolis line to the airport, then the public would be more inclined to support additional lines.

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