Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Transportation governance bill is an inane solution to a problem that doesn't exist

An under-the-radar bill that would profoundly alter Sound Transit and other municipal agencies currently tasked with planning, building, and operating transportation systems throughout Puget Sound is quickly moving through the state Senate...and possibly headed for a floor vote as early as today.

SSB 5803 originates from an idea proposed years ago by the Discovery Institute, anti-transit ideologues, and conservative billionaire John Stanton, who was a key Dino Rossi supporter in 2004.

What SSB 5803 does is complicate and confuse the existing decision making process, which is already hard for many citizens to understand. The proposed law would stomp all over home rule and local control by essentially consolidating existing transportation agencies into one larger entity.

If you appreciate how limited your choices are when it comes to mobile phone service, you'll love tycoon John Stanton's plan for shaking up transportation governance.

We're constantly being assured by Wall Street suits that big takeovers will have a positive benefit for consumers. But that's rarely the case. The last thing residents of Puget Sound want to see is a series of massive, confusing, disruptive mergers.

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.

It's clever because the plan calls for the commission to prepare and implement (with voter approval) a "comprehensive and integrated corridor based mult-imodal regional mobility investment plan" that creates a favored list of "mobility projects" which have regional significance. (Sorry for the mouthful of jargon).

Note the use of the phrase "mobility projects". The bill's definition, which is extremely broad, includes practically any transit or road project you can think of - from offramps to trolleys. What this means is that the commission could create a project list that is heavily dominated by new roads instead of extensions to transit systems. And that is what ends up being presented to voters.

The new entity that SSB 5803 sets up will be run by a board of 12 politicians each compensated by an annual salary that runs into six figures. Four of them would be selected by the executives of Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap, and King Counties (Kitsap has a commission chair, not an executive) - and the rest would be elected from eight new sprawling districts.

These new districts would be much larger than county council districts. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for candidates with grassroots campaigns to compete. But the elections would be a bonanza for big business, which would have an opportunity to try and sell handpicked loyalists to voters.

The positions would all be nonpartisan, allowing right wing ideologues to stealthily mask what they actually stand for in the hopes of getting on the commission. And once on, they wouldn't have to worry about listening to constituents - the terms are six years, except for at the very beginning, when three commissioners would serve two year terms and another three would serve four year terms.

And with unanimous consent of the commission required for forwarding any future plans on to voters, one or two right wing, anti-transit members could refuse to sign on to any proposal not to their liking.

SSB 5803 allows people like John Stanton to use their fortune to manipulate the makeup of this new commission by funding candidates who believe in a "roads only" approach. (The commission also seems nicely designed to provide comfortable jobs for Puget Sound area lawmakers leaving the Legislature).

Just imagine...another layer of bureaucracy, incessant wrangling over legal and constitutional issues, a new group of political leaders absorbed in process instead of action...that's what we'd get with SSB 5803.

The all-powerful commission created by SSB 5803 would be directed to hire away Sound Transit's talent in long range planning. It would get veto power over revenue requests, any ballot measures sent to voters, and decisions about transit routes and fares, crippling Sound Transit as a result.

The commission would also swallow the existing Puget Sound Regional Council and the Regional Transportation Investment District (formed explicitly by the Legislature not long ago to prioritize what road projects the region needs).

We believe it's unwise to mess with something that is working well. Sound Transit in particular enjoys widespread popular support and is now finalizing plans to expand its critical light rail system. Opponents and skeptics of light rail, in a desperate attempt to stop Sound Transit's progress, are trying to change the law and the rules that govern municipal decision making in one fell swoop.

Just remember, when you hear Tim Eyman contributor and Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman's team of consultants call for "re-prioritizing" transportation, what they are really saying is, "shift the light rail dollars to road building projects". (Kemper, if you recall, has previously voiced support for the construction of a new interstate highway in east King County to run parallel to I-405).

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.

Sound Transit is building and running the effective transit solutions that citizens want and deserve. And the agency is well governed by a federated board made up of elected officials from existing municipalities who are already directly elected by their neighbors. By working collaboratively together, board members have developed a needed regional perspective and are briefed by a professional staff led by an extremely competent chief executive (Joni Earl).

Sound Transit is poised to move forward, ready to take action and launch Phase II. Almost all of the projects in its first phase are done or are nearing completion. With construction costs going up every year (the estimate is $800 million every twelve months), it's time to move ahead, not slow down.

It's discouraging that some senators, including several Democrats, are pushing a bill that punishes success and dismantles the agency.

If SSB 5803 is passed, Sound Transit as we know it now would cease to exist. That would definitely not be a good thing. There's just no good reason to reinvent what works. Needlessly tinkering with the agencies that are actually delivering, like Sound Transit, will do absolutely nothing to solve transportation headaches like the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

That point cannot be emphasized enough. This bill does not solve problems. Instead, it creates new ones at a time when we cannot afford more difficulties.

Establishing a new regional transportation commission is merely a recipe for moving all of these political fights to a new venue...a bigger, shinier arena with handsome compensation for the referees courtesy of taxpayers.

This is a fruitless exercise in navel gazing that gets us nowhere. It is an inane solution to a problem that doesn't even exist, but has serious consequences.

If you like the idea of tossing out community input, tampering with proven results, and discarding years of deliberative planning in favor of allowing a roomful of newly knighted transportation czars to make major decisions, you'll love SSB 5803. If you don't, you should contact your state senator today and urge them to vote "no" on SSB 5803.

To leave a message with his or her office, contact the Legislative Hotline at the in-state toll-free phone number 1-800-562-6000.

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