A dramatic vote in favor of a rail transit plan

The weight of 40 years of paralysis about transit planning played a role in the Sound Transit decision to try one more time to convince the voters of the need for more light rail.
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The weight of 40 years of paralysis about transit planning played a role in the Sound Transit decision to try one more time to convince the voters of the need for more light rail.

"We've dug ourselves a 40-year hole," said King County Council member Larry Phillips at the meeting of Sound Transit Thursday, July 24. Not long after, the board passed, 16-2, the latest effort to get out of this hole by putting a 34-mile extension of light rail on the ballot next November. The hole was created in 1968-70, when the region twice turned down a rail transit proposal and fell far behind the rest of the nation's big cities. There followed, Phillips said, four decades of analysis paralysis, during which "the perfect has been the enemy of the good."

No one was saying the plan passed on Thursday was anywhere close to perfect. Putting rail across the Interstate 90 floating bridge is full of technical problems. Even though commuters are clamoring for more buses, this plan puts 67 percent of its $17.9 billion into light rail and only 2 percent into buying new express buses. It won't be completed until 2023. The bond measure might be cutting it close on margins of debt coverage, and the board narrowed those margins a bit more yesterday by front-loading the bus relief in the next few years. Spooked by the way voters rejected the bigger Proposition 1 package last year, this Sound Transit 2 (ST2) package does not really finish the job, since it does not get to Everett or Tacoma or Redmond.

But as a political compromise that got a strong vote from the board (only King County Executive Ron Sims and King County Council member Pete von Reichbauer of Federal Way voted against it), it's an artful package that might work. The packed chamber at Union Station applauded when the vote was finally taken. Now the measure goes to the public, and we shall see if the region can finally overcome the legacy of those 40 years. The opponents, who mostly favor buses or some of the newer devices of managing congestion through tolls, are ready to attack ST2 and may even outspend the dispirited forces for rail. And all the time spent getting to yesterday's decision means the pro-rail campaign is very late in getting started.

The dramatic vote not only looked back at all those years from the Forward Thrust defeats to the final passage of the starter rail system (opening next year), passed in 1996. It also provided some glimpses of future political leadership. One sad moment came when a partly researched measure introduced by Sims, with backing from state Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond (and therefore, presumably, her boss, Gov. Chris Gregoire), drew lots of criticism and was rejected, 3-15. The Sims amendment would have given $120 million to Metro Transit to provide immediate relief for overcrowding. It had all kinds of problems: Sound Transit can't legally fund local bus service, and the Sims amendment threatened to take money away from expanded express service to Snohomish County, the key concession that made ST2 gain a majority. A face-saving compromise amendment, increasing Sound Transit express bus service, was passed, which seemed to be enough to bring Hammond, a bit surprisingly, over to the yes side. (Gregoire had been firmly advised that opposing ST2 was going to cost Seattle area support in her governor's race.)

If it was poignant to see Sims, himself a former chair of Sound Transit, so isolated and unpopular, it was also interesting to see the rise of the Snohomish County forces, especially the smooth young county executive, Aaron Reardon. Reardon played a strong game of poker with Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, the Sound Transit board chair, gaining lots of bus service, some of it at Seattle's expense, before swinging to support ST2. He tried to help Sims with his clumsy amendment, and paused dramatically before voting against it in the end.

ST2 [1.1 MB PDF] definitely responds to many of the political criticisms that sank Proposition 1 (combining roads and transit into a whopping package). It adds performance audits. It says the taxes should be rolled back in 2038, when the phase has been built, not extended in an open-ended fashion. It has money (and a time limit for spending it) for building a short rail line on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe route on the Eastside. It envisions substituting a more modern tax, such as a carbon tax, for the sales tax component of ST2 sometime in the future. It has more tools to leverage partnerships with the private sector and local bus systems, as well as several mixed-mode transit nodes. It has more flexibility to adapt to changed market conditions.

In the end, though, ST2 will draw a lot of fire for putting so many eggs in the rail basket when so many people are demanding more bus service — right now. Phillips' "40-year hole" is one reason for having to spend so much on so few miles of rail — the costs of retrofitting rail into a built-up environment are huge. The Sound Transit people argue, with reason, that unless the system has a high-capacity spine, off which feeder services can play, it will never get ahead of the congestion woes, nor be able to shape much growth around station nodes. (Not much shaping, however, again a result of having waited so long.)

Perhaps the most plaintive point was made by Julia Patterson, a King County Council member from South King County. Only Sound Transit has any money to do anything about our transportation mess, she argued. The state is broke. Metro's taxing authority is used up. "Nobody is planning anything," she lamented. Underlying her argument is the political reality that with only Sound Transit having some real sources of money (unless tolling is found feasible), all the other strapped agencies wanting to repair bridges and add modern bus service will likely pick the pockets of Sound Transit in a coming session of the Legislature — unless ST2 is enacted by voters this fall.

Arguing emotionally that with 1.8 million people expected to move into the area and some of our key roadways already failing, Patterson said "we have a moral obligation to the voters and our grandchildren" to do something. It's an odd way to make the case for ST2 (spending $18 billion to make politicians feel better about all that dereliction), but nearly everyone in the room sensed the despair and guilt created by 40 years of not doing the job. We'll see if the voters concur.


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