The proposed 15-year, $17.6 billion Sound Transit measure to expand bus express-transit and add more light rail took so long in gaining political approval that it hasn't even been placed on the ballot yet. Time is short for the November vote, and the pro-rail forces are scrambling to put together a campaign. Opponents are also gearing up.
Last year, opponents of a large rail and roads package easily defeated a very well-funded ballot issue, demoralizing the generous business backers of Proposition 1. This year, both the shortage of time and cash and the need for a different campaign approach have led to a different strategy for the new proposal. If Prop 1 was big and corporate, the campaign for Sound Transit 2, or ST2, will be low-cost, high-volunteer, bottom-up.
The new pro-light rail campaign is called Mass Transit Now, and its campaign manager is Andrew Glass Hastings, 27, who is taking a leave of absence from his job as a strategic adviser in Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' office. Nickels is the current chair of the Sound Transit board, and he pulled together the consensus for putting ST2 on the ballot this fall. In 2006, Glass Hastings successfully managed Nickels' voter-approved "Bridging the Gap" tax levy, which put $544 million into street improvements for the city.
Mass Transit Now will be a hurry-up effort with a much smaller budget than Prop. 1, which spent close to $4 million and failed by a wide margin. The new budget may be around $1.5 million, and will rely very much on volunteers and some of the Internet strategies honed by the Obama campaign. Glass Hastings says victory will be grown from the grassroots, up. "Last year was more of a traditional top-down campaign," he explains. "This time we're a lean, mean grassroots operation looking for more door-to-door voter contact so they know why it's a great plan."
But he also admits the campaign is late in getting started. Last year, the pro-Proposition 1 group, Yes on Roads and Transit, had raised nearly $800,000 by early September 2007. According to the latest reports from the Public Disclosure Commission, Mass Transit Now (MTN) has raised just $3,000.
Still, Glass Hastings says going with the grassroots could help enlist a large number of voters and small donors — similar to the approach of Obama's presidential campaign. The broader appeal is also expected to help spur a bigger turnout for light rail on November 4, assuming all those youthful Obama supporters remember to vote for ST2 further down on the ballot.
"We're going for a wide range of sources and different donors," he says. "There are plenty of progressive, young, transit-friendly voters in King County, Pierce County, and Snohomish County. We are going to explore a lot of options and be creative in the way we reach them." The campaign could take "many forms on the Web and blogosphere," he adds, including the use of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, or YouTube. MTN will also pursue potential big business donors such as Microsoft and Boeing via traditional fundraising routes, while also using the region's "strong volunteer base" to court as many smaller donors as possible.
"Right now is somewhat of a perfect storm," he says. "We've got a presidential election with a heavy turnout expected; and — with high gas prices — demand for transit is at an all-time high all across the country."
But can "going Facebook" really propel an infrastructure improvement proposition to victory? Glass Hastings admits there's no ready-made road map to work from, but he's confident the public's "pent-up demand for light rail" will work to his advantage. Helping will be the local Sierra Club, which last year opposed Proposition 1 and divided environmental support.
"The Sierra Club opposed [Proposition 1] because the additional highway lanes would swamp all benefits of increased transit and worsen global warming," Club transportation chairman Tim Gould and Cascade Chapter chairman Mike O'Brien wrote in a July 17 guest editorial in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "Sound Transit Phase 2 (ST2) is a critical piece of our transportation future. We are tired of sitting in our cars burning fuel and dollars, while watching our time evaporate."
Opponents this time won't have the Sierra Club on their side, and it's not clear yet whether King County Executive Ron Sims, who opposes ST2, will be quiet or active in his criticisms. Regardless, opponents are armed with deep pockets and deep reservations about the $17.6 billion measure.
The Seattle Times reported in July that the Eastside Transportation Association, under the financial backing of Bellevue Square developer Kemper Freeman Jr., a longtime foe of rail transit, has already spent more than $50,000 in anti-light rail radio ads. Meanwhile, last year's No to Prop 1 group is also planning to campaign against the measure, and will run radio and television ads during the coming months, according to Mark Baerwaldt, the group's treasurer. Some observers expect the opponents to equal or outspend the MTN campaign. Last time around, Baerwaldt gave nearly $200,000 of his own money to help fund the opposition campaign.
"Our plan is the same as last year," Baerwaldt says, arguing that the measure "still costs too much, does too little, and takes too long to implement." The new measure, he argues, doesn't do enough to provide immediate relief for cramped buses and crowded highways. "It's an absolute lie to say it will fix things right away," he says. "Plus, you can't double-down taxes on a failed strategy — not in today's economy. There isn't an economist in the world who would tell you 'this is the time' for an expensive ballot proposition."
But Glass Hastings disagrees, pointing towards recent talks between economists and congressional Democrats about drafting a second federal economic stimulus package that would "include spending for roads, bridges, schools and other public facilities" — in other words, for infrastructure. Such spending is often used as a way to pull a national economy out of recession.
A recent column by Neal Peirce cites many metro regions that are spending heavily on light rail and other transit, responding to cries from the business community to deal with congestion and howls from commuters wanting to evade high gas prices. Peirce points to Houston, Denver, Charlotte, Phoenix, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Washington, Portland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Norfolk, as well as the upcoming Seattle ballot measure, as evidence that "the future path of metro rail systems in America is unquestionably upward, triggered by congestion, spiraling gas prices, and citizen demand."
"The public has recognized the need for investment and immediate relief," Glass Hastings adds. "That's what this measure provides. The question is this: stalemate or action? Should we sit back and do nothing? Hardly any other major city in the nation relies on just buses. But light rail can put us back on the map."
Of course, voters may also react to gas pump blues by opting against tax increases, or by favoring quicker relief through buses. Before the debate is joined, however, Mass Transit Now has to get on voters' radars. So far they've got a late start and a low budget.