Several weeks ago, I wrote an extensive post dissecting a bill
that would fundamentally change the structure of transportation governance in Puget Sound. That post started a much needed discussion about the ramifications of passing Senate Bill 5803
and related proposals for creating a super commission of transportation czars that would have broad decision making powers.
In that post, I touched on the motivations of some of the proponents, observing that a number of them seem to want a governance shakeup in order to disrupt Sound Transit's current momentum, popularity, and light rail program:
Stanton's plan is a clever ploy for destroying the wall that currently separates revenues allocated for transit and highways - so that at some point in the future, there will be a larger pool of funds to tap to lay more cement in the suburbs.
All you need to do to see the proof of rail opponents' involvement in the governance debate is look at their websites. Rail opponents have consistently lost political battle after political battle because the public wants light rail.
The report from the Regional Transportation Commission
co-chaired by John Stanton and Norm Rice may be somewhat new (the recommendations were presented at the beginning of 2007), but the idea of a governance shakeup that carves up or de-powers Sound Transit is certainly not
. Joel Connelly's recent column on SB 5803
clearly suggests that he and John Stanton see the new commission as an opportunity to slow down or nix Link:
Above all, proposed transit systems would have to be justified as the best way for getting people from place to place.
Backers of light rail would have to give proof of benefits to match its sky-high cost. They'd have to show suitability to the Eastside. A Ron Sims vision speech won't cut it.
The commission could consider fast, predictable bus service as an alternative. It could ask salient, politically incorrect questions: What about diverting transit dollars to the vitally necessary upgrade of state Route 520?
All emphasis is mine. Catch the (negative) allusions to Link?
The column could have simply been about the merits and drawbacks of the RTC recommendations (with perhaps subtle references to the current situation). But it was instead a rant that zeroed in on Sound Transit. Note especially the critical use of the words "above all" in the first paragraph I excerpted.
It's that old theme of stopping a runaway train
rail opponents have used for years. "We need X
to hold Sound Transit accountable" (substitute X for a governance shakeup, Olympia-imposed restrictions, forced public votes on major board decisions, or some other scheme to keep the agency hopelessly stuck in process).
Joel refers to ST and RTID as the "architects of this fall's likely train wreck" and John Stanton is quoted at the beginning of the column as saying the outcome of the package will be "a train wreck". It isn't even finalized yet. (Of course, we heard the same doom-and-gloom tone from area commentators before voters rejected I-912. NPI did more than offer ominous or cryptic remarks about the future - we worked extraordinarily hard to defeat Initiatives 912 and 917 and keep the 2005 Transportation Package intact as a result. And we won.)
SB 5803 is glowingly glorified as a miraculous reform that will back light rail into a corner or against a wall - its designers put on the defensive, its promoters' enthusiasm tempered, its funding diverted to lay asphalt and concrete, and its plans stuck indefinitely on a back burner.
We know that rail opponents have been behind the concept for years
, hoping it would help kill or cripple Central Link. Their goal now is to prevent expansion of the system...in any direction. They've admitted as much.
And unfortunately, they're getting help in their renewed efforts to thwart Sound Transit 2 from unlikely allies - key Democrats who claim to be pro-transit.
The week before last, SB 5803's prime sponsor, Ed Murray, sent a letter to House and Senate leaders calling for legislation
that forcibly dismantles the Sound Transit 2 package and puts the East Link light rail expansion on hold.
Murray's justification for such an action, according to his letter, is that there are still "questions" about extending Link across Interstate 90. So Murray, who last month told NPI that our region can't afford any more delays on transportation, is now saying East Link needs more study
Murray wants to disrupt Sound Transit's work
, through SB 5803 as well as directly stopping the agency from moving forward with East Link - all the while claiming that he's the most pro-transit legislator in the state.
(In other words, he is declaring that we have to accelerate implementation of transit solutions, but is simultaneously proposing amending state law to significantly restrict what Sound Transit can do. And Sound Transit is the entity that's actually delivering
improvements to the region.)
Murray just can't leave well enough alone. If you look closely at his words and actions - from the distant past, recent history, or the present - and compare them, you can't help but see inconsistency...and an endless desire to meddle.
Last year, he gave his blessing
to an under the radar bill that tied ST and RTID together. It passed at the very end of the session and took many observers by surprise. That controversial legislation
prevented Sound Transit from going to the ballot in 2006 and furthermore made success of the formerly seperate roads and transit packages contingent upon each other.
Now Murray says the Sound Transit/RTID marriage was a terrible mistake
, and he regrets supporting it
. (Surprise, surprise). Of course, his transportation governance bill calls for even tighter integration - the super commission created by SB 5803 would absorb RTID and take apart Sound Transit with a wrecking ball.
Years ago Murray also played
a key role
in getting legislation passed that allowed
for the creation of the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority (and he was even the prime sponsor of the bill in the House
), only to later condemn the monorail project
after the plan and the agency started falling apart.
Then there's this bizarre exchange which a monorail supporter, Mitch Gitman, reported
on the Friends of Monorail mailing list early last year (February 2006). Emphasis below is mine:
Today was 'Transportation Lobby Day' in Olympia, and I got a chance to ask Murray to his face about that "non-monorail transit" stipulation in 2871. He explained that it was necessary for the bill to pass because there was such animosity against monorail in the state legislature. Who knows if he isn't just passing the buck when he says that?
He also said he has never been a monorail supporter because Seattle is a city concerned with views and monorail columns get in the way.
According to Gitman, in that conversation, Murray also apparently said something along the lines of "I'm trying to create a train wreck in central Puget Sound on purpose." (Oh look, the "train wreck" theme again).
In 2005, Murray appeared to be alternatively pessimistic and optimistic about the chances of Initiative 912 succeeding at the polls. Here's pessimistic Murray
from the summer of 2005 (mid August, after I-912 had qualified for the ballot):
The Stranger: What do you think about the way that the No on I-912 campaign is shaping up?
Murray: It's not clear to me that it is shaping up.
And that was it. No elaboration - or at least the Stranger didn't print any. Now here's optimistic Murray
from several weeks before that:
Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said I-912 can be beat. "I don't take it for granted that it's going to pass," he said. "I think if a campaign is run that's county by county that shows people at the local level the roads that they're getting, it has a chance" of being defeated.
And that's exactly the kind of campaign that was run, by Keep Washington Rolling, by NPI's Washington Defense, by the entire NO on I-912 coalition. So why was Murray dejected on Election Night
before the returns were in, but after the coalition had essentially finished the campaign riding a huge swell of momentum? The P-I actually described him as pessimistic
(And, in fact, it wasn't quite over: at the time Murray was being gloomy, I was dropping in on a final NO on I-912 demonstration in Medina with Rep. Ross Hunter next to the SR 520 onramp, orange "Safety First" sign in hand).
After the results were in, Murray was quoted as saying that the I-912 defeat showed that if lawmakers "do the courageous thing, voters will support you."
Never anything to worry about, eh?But perhaps the best example of inconsistency is Murray's support for reshaping Seattle's school district board. From the Seattle Times, last year
State Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said Wednesday's board meeting only bolstered his argument that Seattle's board should have two appointed members to temper its political volatility. Murray, who hopes to win a state Senate seat next month, is drafting a bill for the Legislature to consider in its next session.
That's right. Murray wants to stop electing some school board members to reduce political volatility
. But his SB 5803 would set up a new super commission of transportation czars, most of whom would be directly elected
from new sprawling districts that span county boundaries.
Sounds like a recipe for political volatility
Then there's this bit from the Seattle Weekly where Murray pointedly argues
against the concept of having boards with directly elected members:
"I don't think the School Board as currently constructed gets the level of visibility and scrutiny it needs," Murray says. "If you walk up and down the street and asked people who their School Board members are, they wouldn't know."
(Emphasis mine). That's been one of our arguments all along...and that's one of the reasons why Sound Transit is governed by a federated board to begin with! We already elect municipal officials to make decisions. We already have effective local government. We don't need to confuse voters with a transportation mega-commission on top of everything we've already got.
Seattle's public schools are run by a directly elected board which makes decisions (and is independent from the city), but the district is dealing with a number of problems, so Ed Murray wants to rewire board governance
Local control simply doesn't work if Olympia is constantly messing around with governance, process, and planning. But the state Legislature and the Governor are actually being pushed to interfere by those who oppose Sound Transit and the agency's light rail project.
Rail opponents have lost in court, they've lost in the U.S. Congress, and they've lost the battle for public opinion. But they aren't giving up. There's little they can do to stop Central Link now. The line will open in 2009. But they can put a halt to expansion of the system
- forestalling progress for years.
And every year of dithering costs some $800 million.
The discussion over governance isn't over, but already Ed Murray is making public his desire to deep freeze East Link. Apparently when he threatened
to figuratively get off the train
if Sound Transit didn't include the First Hill station he wanted on the University Link extension (and hang the cost), he meant it.
And on Friday, SB 5803 proponent Senator Cheryl Pflug (the Republican who represents the 5th District), held a press conference in the state capital announcing legislation that would strip Sound Transit of any money it gets this fall for its East Link light rail project.
The funds would instead be reallocated towards road construction
, including a six lane tunnel under Seattle's central waterfront (apparently Pflug didn't pay attention to that special election earlier this month - Emerald City voters said very clearly they don't want a tunnel
Pflug's shortsighted "Vision 21" proposal for more road capacity
has already been touted over at unSoundPolitics and on the radio by conservative Dori Monson (who hosts a weekday afternoon show on 710 KIRO).
It's a brazen admission from ST opponents. They want to steal potential dollars voters haven't even given to the agency yet
and use it for pavement. It's an outrage and it's totally unacceptable.Eastside citizens and city councils must take notice.
East Link - the crown jewel of Sound Transit's Phase II proposal and the consensus high capacity transit choice of Redmond, Bellevue, Issaquah, and Kirkland - is under assault in Olympia.
But we can prevail and save our extension if we let our voices be heard.
It would be a grave mistake to jeopardize all the hard and thoughtful work that has gone into the current regional package. Ben Schiendelman succinctly nailed down this point in his guest op-ed
from last Tuesday's Seattle Times:
The planning work that has taken place over the past several years, putting together the best projects that serve the most people, is sound. Seattle residents commuting to jobs on the Eastside (like me) and those going the other direction will be well-served. The tens of thousands of students and faculty, patients and doctors at the University of Washington and the UW Medical Center will be well-served. People commuting from Fife, Federal Way and Des Moines, or Northgate, Mountlake Terrace and Lynnwood, into Seattle — our largest employment hub — will be well-served.
The Sound Transit board has negotiated a package that benefits everyone in the region. It is what we need. Any new regional agency would reach the same conclusions.
Pflug and fellow Republicans (including many who supported I-912) are still clinging to the idea that we can build our way out of congestion - in a nutshell: More lanes, more highways. Wider is better. Pavement good!
No matter how much we expand capacity, congestion will always
get worse. That's because trying to build your way out is like trying to lose weight by loosening your belt. It just doesn't work. It makes absolutely no sense
.That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't fund road maintenance, safety improvements, and other needed upgrades.
But if we really want to attack congestion, then the answer is to invest in mass transit systems that allow for mobility choices.
Opponents may complain about social engineering
, but public policy is supposed to influence behavior. (We have these things called laws for a reason). We've been subsidizing automobile use for decades - and that's social engineering.
Sound Transit, again, is the
entity that has proposed a bold, realistic, and innovative plan for moving forward
. With Central Link due to open in 2009, extending the light rail system to serve more communities is only logical.
The region, especially the Eastside (where NPI is headquartered), is hungry for light rail, and the Phase II package looks mighty appetizing.
Link is at the heart of Phase II, but there are other components in the proposal - including significant upgrades to Sounder and ST Express bus service.
People will use transit if it is convenient, accessible, and attractive. Link can be all of those things if it's a truly regional system. And Phase II is the blueprint for taking light rail to that level.
Sound Transit continues to improve and refine Phase II - just last Thursday, the board approved a modification to the proposed line
that makes Tacoma Dome the southern terminus of a Pierce County Link extension instead of a station in Fife.
The board was able to approve that connection because the agency has been fiscally cautious. Voters can trust that Sound Transit is on a solid financial footing and is budgeting so it can deliver on the promises it makes today.
The chief armchair quarterbacks who have crafted this governance shakeup want to rewrite the rules of the game while the game is in progress. That's bad officiating. Worse, their interest in rewriting the rules is not about improving the sport, it's about affecting the outcome of the game itself.
Instead of hindering the process that's underway, the state must do what it can to help. That means playing a supporting role - listening instead of interrupting. We know many wise elected leaders in Olympia understand this because we've had conversations with them.
There's no reason we can't have a discussion about the merits and drawbacks of governance changes later. But this November represents a very critical, rare opportunity to move forward. The people of Puget Sound are ready for a roads and transit package that attacks congestion and provides commuting choices for the future. Instead of politics as usual, let's give progress a chance for a change.