Why governance reform for local transit would not work

A governor's commission suggests fixing our transportation problems by changing the governing board to a directly elected body, as in Portland. A skeptic says such a reform would be slow, reduce accountability, and probably make our transportation planning worse.

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A recent test run of Sound Transit light rail. (Sound Transit)

A governor's commission suggests fixing our transportation problems by changing the governing board to a directly elected body, as in Portland. A skeptic says such a reform would be slow, reduce accountability, and probably make our transportation planning worse.

Fifteen months ago, a group appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire called the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) submitted its conclusions for a proposed makeover of the Puget Sound transportation agencies. The RTC's 112-page public report produced eight major findings, the essence of which is that the Puget Sound region is experiencing a severe strain in transportation caused by a lack of money, coordination, and prioritization.

These findings are well-documented and mostly undisputed. Who would argue that a $62 billion shortfall in funding is not a serious problem? More debatable is the recommendation by the RTC to solve this problem with a newly created 15-member agency that would plan, prioritize, and fund all modes of regional transportation in the four-county region (King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties). How a change in governance would close the $62 billion funding gap has yet to be explained.

The issue of a directly elected board vs. a federated board structure (as we now have) is the centerpiece of the RTC recommendations. What problem does this solve? And will it introduce other problems? Count me a skeptic.

The supporters say that a directly elected board allows the voters to "get at" their board members during an election, tossing them out if they fail to perform well. By contrast, with the current federated board, a voter might dislike the way, say, a Pierce County councilmember is performing on the Sound Transit board but love the way she or he is serving Pierce County.

However, there are lots of problems with this proposed cure. The districts would be huge (about 235,000 citizens in each one). Some fear that the elected directors would become like the Port of Seattle, a rubber-stamp arm of business and labor that leaves the public in the dark and draws little media or voter attention. A recent audit by the state's auditor provided evidence of this fear with the Port of Seattle. The devastating audit was made more difficult by port employees who were uncooperative with the state auditor. The problems raised in the audit have led to an investigation by the FBI.

Sound Transit, on the other hand, has been audited on a regular basis over the 15 years of its existence. Each time, the results were a clean audit. Such an audit is a strong accountability measure that provides much clearer oversight than an election every six years, and it certainly doesn't require a directly elected board of directors to achieve this accountability.

The call for governance reform is an old story around here. Whenever there are problems with agencies in Washington state, the idea of changing governance seems to surface quickly thereafter. When Sound Transit experienced a large cost overrun and accompanying loss of public confidence, pressure was applied to the Legislature to make the board of directors directly elected. Many critics said the only way for Sound Transit to regain public confidence was to have a revote of the project.

Instead, Sound Transit managed to regroup, find new leadership, and recover the confidence of the public with neither a public revote nor a directly elected board of directors. The continuing call for a directly elected board seems to be more of a remnant of that troubled time that is no longer relevant to an agency that has reformed itself.

Likewise, when the Seattle Monorail Project experienced a budget shortfall and loss of public confidence, critics again demanded a directly elected board. Similarly, after the 2004 election problems related to the Washington state governor's election, there was a call by critics to make the King County elections director elected directly by the public instead of appointed by the King County executive. The decision to move forward with a directly elected position in the elections department was made by the voters via initiative, and it will take years to complete. The complexities of restructuring transportation planning in Puget Sound would be similarly complex and long-drawn out.

Huge changes to transportation governance could slow the progress under way and paralyze transportation planning for years.

Even if we embarked on this complicated reform of governance, would directly elected officials be more accountable? I'm far from convinced, for several reasons. In practice, key positions in government are appointed as well as directly elected. Seattle City Light, for instance, is run by a director who is appointed by the Seattle City Council. The public has no direct role other than through public comment. Yet this seems to provide adequate results, and the public seems perfectly happy with this type of accountability. Few people have any idea who runs Seattle City Light, yet the agency keeps the electricity flowing to customers 24 hours a day.

In many ways, a federated board of elected officials (the present system for Sound Transit) allows the public to hold these officials accountable much better than if they were directly elected, since there are two points of accountability for every board member.

For instance, the mayor of Sumner serves on the Sound Transit board. He is accessible to the public and the media at every board meeting for Sound Transit as well as during his duties as the mayor of Sumner. This arrangement provides more transparency, and ultimately, more accountability than a directly elected board member serving 235,000 people and elected in low-profile races every six years.

Would a new board be any more successful in solving the massive $62 billion funding gap of proposed projects? If the desire is to put into place a regional transportation agency that can levy huge tax increases, tolling, congestion pricing, and privatization of our public infrastructure, then keep in mind that the recommendations of a new group of relatively obscure commissioners would be met with severe public resistance once the details are known. In 2005, the Economist magazine gave this region the dubious honor of having the "worst transport planning in North America." Some changes need to be made, but the rush to a directly elected board seems to ignore the biggest question of all. Namely, where is the $62 billion funding shortfall going to come from?

This question must be answered before any governance reform legislation is passed.


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