"I'm leaning 'no' (on a Sound Transit ballot measure this fall)...Why would you go back to a vote when you don't have the answers (regarding unresolved engineering and cost issues)?" — State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, Sound Transit board member.
Undeterred by the one-sided defeat last fall of Proposition 1, which called for the largest local-level tax increase in American history, mainly to fund the extension of Seattle's unfinished light rail system into King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties, Sound Transit is asking citizens to give their opinions on two possible options for a 2008 ballot measure.
The first option, costing an estimated $9 billion, would be financed by a sales-tax increase in urban areas of the three counties. It would extend light rail north to Northgate, east to Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, and south of Sea-Tac airport to South 200th St. It would pay for design of a light rail extension to Everett, land purchases for extensions to Everett and Tacoma, and study of an extension to Issaquah.
The second option, costing an estimated $10.4 billion, calls for a slightly-larger sales-tax increase and would extend light rail east to Redmond and south to Highline Community College. It also would pay for a streetcar connection to First Hill and north to Aloha St. and bus-lane improvements on Route 99 in Shoreline.
Both options also would include some money for improved bus and Sounder service.
Sound Transit conducted a survey earlier this year and will hold public meetings, whose times and dates are to be announced, as well as offer further opportunities to comment online. It wants to decide what to do by mid-summer.
Notably absent from this taxpayer-financed opinion sampling are two other options which voters might reasonably expect to consider.
Option number three would direct Sound Transit to complete its present Phase I line before proposing any Phase II expansion. The initial line, from Sea-Tac airport to Northgate, is far behind its construction schedule, billions over its promised budget and missing several stations promised when the plan was initially approved by voters. First Hill station, projected to be the station with heaviest use, has been cancelled because of engineering problems and financial shortfalls. (The next projected northward station, at Husky Stadium, would disrupt traffic patterns near the university for several years and require drilling and excavation in the area. The area already is well served by bus transit).
Option number four would direct Sound Transit to terminate northward light rail construction in downtown Seattle. It would provide funds to jump start expansions of normal bus and bus rapid transit service in the three counties. Such service expansions could be instituted immediately — not years from now — and at a small percentage of the price tag attached to a notoriously cost-ineffective light rail system.
Sound Transit, according to previous form, is offering us only two similar options — both centered around gold-plated light rail — and not a fuller range of options which public officials and knowledgeable transportation specialists normally might expect to consider.
My own reaction to the exercise is: What can they be thinking?
Prop. 1 was thunderously rejected both because of its cost and because it neglected other transit and road options beyond light rail. Son of Prop. 1, if presented to voters this fall, apparently would follow the same pattern. What did Sound Transit board members not understand about last fall's vote?
The other consideration is obvious: The region is under economic pressure. Both individual voters and the general economy do not need fresh tax increases. The Boeing tanker contract, WaMu distress, the sale of Safeco, and the recently abandoned Belltown real-estate super project all should tell Sound Transit board members that now is not the time for another tax increase for a light rail-centered ballot measure.
The Sound Transit obtuseness provides yet another reason that the Rice-Stanton proposals for an elected regional transportation body should be adopted. No board member, directly accountable to voters, would dare come forward with the two options presented.
As Transportation Secretary Hammond has pointed out, the proposals were framed with many cost and engineering questions about them still unresolved. Sound familiar? Consider the abandoned Seattle Monorail plan, the dueling Alaskan Way tunnel and elevated-highway rebuild proposals, the running-near-empty Allentown Trolley from Westlake Center to South Lake Union and, of course, the notorious Prop. 1.
Message to Sound Transit board members: Get real. Get it right. Or get out.