Sound Transit 2 failure would be a political train wreck

There's a good chance the Proposition 1 ballot measure to expand light rail will fail, stalling for years comprehensive transportation planning in metro Puget Sound.
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There's a good chance the Proposition 1 ballot measure to expand light rail will fail, stalling for years comprehensive transportation planning in metro Puget Sound.

One way to think about the Sound Transit bond issue, known as Proposition 1 on the Nov. 4 ballot, is to weigh what it would do versus what we might get if it's defeated. It's easy to think of what would be better, but would we get there? Given the record of dysfunctional transportation planning in metro Puget Sound, you can make a pretty good case for grabbing the bird in hand.

UPDATED FIGURES: For starters, will Sound Transit 2 pass? It was looking good in the polling in August, leading by 65-20 in a KING-TV/Survey USA poll and 63-29 in an EMC Research poll. Sound Transit's most recent poll reports support holding at 63 percent. But several factors have made passage less likely. One is the drop in gas prices by about $1 a gallon. Another is the scary economy, making voters stingy with new taxes. A third is crowded buses, which make a case for more transit but probably a stronger case for more immediate relief than the long lead time of a rail-heavy proposal. Fourth factor is the anemic support for Proposition 1's hurry-up campaign, with contributions running about $700,000 compared to the generous $4.2 million spent on the failed 2007 measure (which combined transit with roads).

About the only positive news is the expected record turnout, fueled by Obama voters and the close governor's race. That probably means lots more young voters, who like transit, but also some weak, alienated anti-tax voters. The campaign itself has been low-profile, partly not to stir up the opponents, and it depends heavily on the work of green-roots activists and the Mayor Greg Nickels political organization.

Nickels, who is also chair of the Sound Transit Board, almost singlehandedly pushed through a vote this year, much to the chagrin of many politicians (notably Gov. Gregoire and state House Speaker Frank Chopp). Nickels was trying to catch the Obama tide, and he feared that waiting another year would lead to the Legislature's grabbing taxing authority away from the agency. But Nickels is not exactly a popular local politician in the suburbs, and it's fair to say the campaign hasn't ignited much excitment. It will probably do poorly in Pierce County, which gets only a small benefit, and in Snohomish, which is normally suspicious of Seattle. Eastsiders are ambivalent because the rail line doesn't get to Redmond and some wonder about the problems in the I-90 crossing. Seattle will have to carry the day by a huge margin.

So, let's assume it will fail. What happens next? The political train wreck won't be pretty. Gregoire, if re-elected, has lost most of her leverage on these big issues (punting on them until after the election), and a Gov. Dino Rossi would amount to an invasion of the Democratic Legislature that would take years to settle. I suspect that a defeat of rail transit this time would pretty much be the end of Seattle's transit dreams, extending back to 1968.

A lot depends on whether Prop 1 loses by a big margin. If it does, Pierce County will pretty much move to the dismantle option, partly because Pierce County Executive John Ladenberg, a true believer in Sound Transit, is leaving that post. Snohomish County could also move to the opposition column, given that Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon was a reluctant convert to this ballot issue. Reardon is thought to be looking at a future governor's race and won't want to have the financial albatross of rail around his neck statewide.

As for King County Executive Ron Sims, he's already opposed to Prop 1 (though keeping quiet about it this time), is definitely on the bus side of the bus-rail balance beam, and will push to get some of the Sound Transit taxing authority for quick relief for his overloaded Metro Transit buses. His proposal to undo the "sub-area equity" aspects of Sound Transit (a political deal where each district gets back roughly what it puts into the tax pot in the form of bus or rail service) may be a polite version of euthanasia.

Sims is the odd man out in local politics these days, but he has hold of two good ideas. One is tolling, and its cousin of demand management by variable tolls, which is the key to solving the Highway 520 bridge problem but faces rough political waters. The other is a faster version of bus service called bus rapid transit (BRT), which has the virtues of an affordable compromise but which proves very difficult to pull off (removing cars from parking lanes, recapturing traffic lanes from city streets, bus jams downtown). Another variant of BRT is "rail-convertible BRT," favored by Attorney General Rob McKenna, where you first put in more buses, then convert those lines to BRT, and then shift to rails on that route — assuming demand keeps requiring these upgrades.

As if this is not enough to overload our political system, there are four other game-changers. One is Tim Eyman's Initiative 985, which is another of his patented monkey wrenches. It would cripple HOV and HOT lanes, tolling, and steal some more money from the sales tax on motor vehicles. It would take a couple years of litigation to extricate ourselves. Second is Rossi, who if elected proposes to divert 40 percent of vehicle sales tax revenue from the general fund to build more highway lanes and fix rebuild 520. That's very unlikely to pass the Democratic Legislature, so one wonders if it's a baragining ploy or a clever way for Rossi to be able to blame still more years of non-solutions on Speaker Chopp. At any rate, Rossi looks like a return to the days of Dixy Lee Ray and Dan MacDonald and Kemper Freeman, when freeways were all the state cared about, leaving transit to be strangled at the local level.

The third game-changer is the proposal by wireless executive John Stanton and former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice to create a regional transportation authority, absorbing the many transit systems into one three-county, directly elected body (as in Portland). The business community is gravitating to this logical, good-government solution. But passing it would be trench warfare for years, with agencies like Metro and the counties protecting their bus systems, cities like Seattle worried about getting outvoted by the more populous suburbs, and the Legislature having a field day cutting deals for votes. Stanton has threatened to force the issue (which gets head pats but no more in Olympia) by filing an initiative next year.

The fourth big sleeper issue is what happens to Sound Transit itself, assuming ST2 is defeated. Its opening of the light rail segment to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport keeps slipping farther into 2009. Losing the Prop 1 revenue would produce cuts in staff and maybe the departure of Joni Earl, the admired director who turned around the troubled agency. Some think financial problems will start showing up, jeopardizing the supposedly funded extension to Husky Stadium. A weakened agency may not be able to put together a new bond issue, and scaling back the scope of such a future proposal, to respond to the taxpayers, risks losing still more votes in outlying areas by offering slender benefits. (One desperate maneuver by Nickels might be to propose a Seattle-funded vote to get to Northgate.)

However you slice it, Sound Transit, following a defeat of ST2, is likely to be a very different agency. It might actually expand, under some scenario creating a truly regional and comprehensive transportation agency. In that role, it might help with an overdue shift of our regional planning strategy. For decades, that strategy has been tilted to Seattle, running railroads between major cities. But the landscape has changed into a far more dispersed job and residential market.

That's the good outcome of defeating ST2. Just as likely, however, Sound Transit will become a spent force. Its once-grand vision of an extensive modern rail system would be permanently truncated — a sad monument to Seattle's puzzling and fatal inability to find a lasting consensus on transportation.


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