Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ron Sims thumbs his nose at Roads and Transit in Seattle Times guest editorial

Anyone who has followed the Northwest Progressive Institute's work for the last few years knows that we're fans of King County Executive Ron Sims, known for his bold leadership of the nation's thirteenth largest county, his wise financial management, and his advocacy for a social safety net that protects Washingtonians living in the state's largest urban area.

This organization endorsed Ron for governor in 2004 because we were so impressed with his willingness to tackle the tough issues head on in his campaign. And since the early days of NPI and Permanent Defense, we have been appreciative of Sims' support of Sound Transit, the regional agency working to deliver transit solutions that improve the mobility of Puget Sound.

That's why we were so aghast this morning to see Ron Sims come out with a guest editorial in the Seattle Times urging voters to reject the Roads & Transit ballot measure (Proposition 1) which includes Sound Transit 2.

Though Sims has never been an energetic backer of the package, he has long insisted that he was neutral and would not take a yes or no position.

Today, however, in submitting this editorial to the Times - which was accompanied by a fawning Joni Balter piece praising him for his break with other elected leaders - he failed to keep his word.

At first glance, Sims' column almost seems like thoughtful skepticism, but upon closer reading, it really contains the same tired arguments that opponents of Roads & Transit have been using for months: they're just dressed up differently.

Sims' first argument in his guest column is that the package is too expensive:
I look at this package with the knowledge that in 50 years, my oldest son will be 80 when it's paid off. My granddaughter will be 55. Their ability to make public investments relevant to their lives and times will be severely limited by this package. Should I be so lucky, I will use my pension until I am 110 years old to pay my share!
While there's no doubt that this package is an ambitious long term plan for the entire Puget Sound region, Sims is incorrect about the financing. The last bond payment is scheduled for 2037, which is far sooner than fifty years from the day that revenue begins to be collected.

After that, the taxes will be scaled back to cover maintenance and operation, unless voters decide to expand the system.

This is not just some kind of promise from politicians, it's the law. The funds raised can only go toward the projects approved by the voters.

It's worth observing that we are never going to stop investing in the common wealth: as the old saying goes, the only things that are certain in this world, in our lives, are death and taxes.

Sims also grouses about the use of regressive taxes, such as the sales tax, as revenue sources. The funding mechanism is not the fault of Sound Transit and RTID, which are simply using the realistic options available to them. Tax reform, or restructuring, is a problem that needs to be solved in Olympia by the state Legislature and the Governor. In the meantime, we cannot afford to wait: the cost of making improvements to our transportation system is only going to increase.

By taking a "no" position, Ron Sims is urging voters to wait for a future proposal that will cost even more than this one!

Amusingly, Ron himself said in 2002 that people are tired of waiting for action:
"You cannot tell people sitting in congestion that we'll have another year of planning," he said.
The planning is complete: the Roads & Transit package is before us, and now Ron Sims is saying we need to go back to the drawing board. So what is his message to Washingtonians sitting in congestion?

Sims goes on in his column complaining about the delay between the vote and the completion of the projects that comprise Roads & Transit:
The benefits of this package are far from immediate. Even if on schedule, 60 percent of new light rail won't open until 2027. Light rail across Lake Washington is at least 14 years away. The Northgate extension is 11 years away.
If we could build light rail overnight, we would - but constructing a mass transit system requires time and planning. Sims surely knows that accelerating construction makes the projects more expensive. The reason we are building light rail in phases is to keep the debt low and the capital costs down.

Another of Sims' criticisms of the package is predicated on the climate crisis:
Tragically, this plan continues the national policy of ignoring our impacts upon global warming. In a region known for our leadership efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, this plan will actually boost harmful carbon emissions. In its entirety, I regrettably conclude that costs exceed benefits.


We must not make transportation decisions without considering the impact on global warming.
We agree that we must not forget about the climate crisis...and so do many leaders within Washington State's conservation community, who worked tirelessly to ensure this package is environmentally friendly, providing the people of Puget Sound with choices so they can get out of their cars.

Roads & Transit includes fifty miles of electric light rail, new HOV lanes, new park and ride lots, improvements to Sounder commuter rail, safer interchanges, elimination of dangerous choke points, and better roads that strengthen the reliability of neighborhood bus service.

America is a free country; we can't stop people from moving to our region, and we are already mired in traffic congestion.

We have to plan for growth and provide residents with other options to get around so we can reduce automobile use and carbon emissions.

But Ron Sims has apparently lost interest in developing rapid transit - he'd rather force the people of Puget Sound to pay to drive on the roads we already have:
The package before us does not include solutions like congestion pricing or variable tolls. The goal of congestion pricing is to keep our highways moving efficiently, getting people to work or home in the shortest amount of time. With congestion pricing we would see immediate results.
How did Sims arrive at that definite conclusion? By looking into a crystal ball? Puget Sound isn't like Greater London. We haven't invested in mass transit systems that allow easy mobility without an automobile. We don't have an Underground.

If Sims thinks implementing a congestion pricing scheme without a regionwide transit system in place is viable, he is mistaken.

Punishing people for driving when they have no other practical way to get to work or get around is unfair - and if it's unpopular enough, it would be repealed, either legislatively or through the initiative process.

How strange that Ron complains about the regressivity of a sales tax and then touts congestion pricing as a sensible solution:
Road pricing has the possibility of being a regressive tax, in that a flat-rate tax falls more heavily on poor drivers than the rich (the fuel tax, while moderately regressive, gives much more incentive to poor drivers than rich drivers to drive more fuel-efficient cars, thereby somewhat negating its regressive aspect).
Let's say, under a congrestion pricing program, motorists are charged a minimum of $1 per day for using the roads. That's at least a $365 bill every year, which is greater than the yearly financial impact of this package.

There are also privacy concerns involved when congesting pricing includes electronic monitoring devices:
Others see proposed schemes, such as PAYD based upon a compulsory GPS tracking system, as an infringement on their rights to privacy, and fear that such a vast surveilance system may be abused.
Selective deployment of congestion or road pricing could possibly help prevent traffic jams and cut emissions, but it cannot magically solve gridlock nor bring our pollution of the atmosphere down to more reasonable levels on its own.

Sims' own plan actually admits (PDF) that light rail is needed for congestion pricing to work (because buses only have limited capacity):
One of the major challenges facing the Puget Sound region would be the expansion of mass transit capacity in order to adequately absorb trips deflected from the roadways on which a regional user fee system had been imposed.
The whole point of this package is to start putting a regional transit system together. The sooner we get started, the sooner we can lessen automobile use.

We have the power to speed up the timeline for completion of the Link light rail extensions if we wish. By approving these projects now, we also stand to benefit from potential federal grants that could bring the system online faster.

It's ironic that Central Link would likely not be under construction right now were it not for Ron Sims. Senator Patty Murray in 2004 credited Sims and Sound Transit Executive Joni Earl for working "night and day to get light rail back on track" in announcing federal funding for Central Link.

This is the man who stood patiently by Sound Transit through years of turmoil, fending off legions of critics, including Tim Eyman, who sparred memorably with Sims on camera during a Sound Transit news conference in 2003.

A Seattle Times story in 2004 put it well:
Ron Sims and Sound Transit. They're linked, for better or for worse.

"I am the Sound Transit guy," the King County executive acknowledges.

For two critical years, while the agency struggled to regain trust, rehabilitate its image and salvage its endangered Seattle light-rail project, Sims was Sound Transit's board chairman, voice and face.

He debated. He negotiated. He lobbied. He proselytized. Almost every time Sound Transit made news in 2002 and 2003, Sims was there.
Sadly, Sims now favors derailing expansion of the very system he fought so hard to have built just a few years ago. His column assails the very heart of Sound Transit 2: bringing Link light rail service to the suburbs of Puget Sound.

He goes after East Link first (LRT to Redmond):
Projected light-rail ridership to Bellevue and Overlake is lackluster because of indirect routing. Traveling from Capitol Hill to the Microsoft campus via downtown Seattle and Mercer Island is slow and cumbersome. The retrofit of Interstate 90 for light rail will slow express-bus service and increase commute times to Issaquah, Sammamish and North Bend.
"Slow and cumbersome" accurately describes how traveling through the Eastside is today by car during rush hour, but how Ron can argue that light rail will be "slow and cumbersome" is a mystery, given that East Link will operate within its own right of way. In fact, East Link will be just the opposite of what he says: reliable, quick, and convenient. How do we know? Because light rail is a proven technology and transit solution, in use in cities across the United States.

The project enjoys broad support on the Eastside, as our Executive Director discovered when he attended a publc workshop in Redmond where the message from every participant was the same: get us light rail and get it to us as quickly as you can. There's a reason East Link is on the table: it's popular.

And it's funny how Ron wasn't opposed to closing and retrofitting the Downtown Seattle Bus tunnel for Central Link. Critics said years ago what Ron is saying now - that bus service would be slowed and commutes would be worsened. But Metro and Sound Transit did their homework and planned well. The tunnel was closed, riders adapted, and the work was done with no serious disruptions to mobility.

Then there's Sims' assault on South Link (LRT to Tacoma):
To the south, we have different inefficiencies. Light rail would connect Seattle to Tacoma (already served by faster Sounder Trains) and run along Highway 99 (where last year's King County Metro "Transit Now" tax increase is ramping up bus-rapid-transit service).
Psst...Ron, it's called giving commuters choices. Link and Sounder are different systems. They may run parallel, but they are not adjacent to each other. They serve different cities.

There are also key differences between Sounder and Link: one is heavy rail operated on tracks owned by Burlington Northern Sante Fe making a very limited number of stops, the other is light rail which will run on its own right of way controlled by Sound Transit and make more frequent stops.

Additionally, Link will run twenty hours a day, while Sounder only runs a few times a day because the tracks are shared with BNSF, and not all riders take the line from terminus to terminus (in this case, Seattle and Tacoma).

Guess what Sims would rather have instead of light rail?
[E]xpanded bus service could generate much higher ridership in this corridor while freeing up funds for light rail to Southcenter and Renton. In Pierce County, we can achieve more traffic relief by extending light rail within Tacoma to the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University.
There is ample evidence that people prefer rail systems over buses, which are less clean, less reliable, hold less people, and vulnerable to congestion - because they run on our already clogged highways!

Sound Transit's opponents have been singing the praises of buses for years because they don't want to build rail transit - not because they genuinely like buses.

Finally, here's Sims' dig at North Link (LRT to Lynnwood):
Further north, we will probably regret the decision to build along I-5, which limits future development. And, ridership would be higher building from Everett to the south.
Sims has bizarrely managed to find reasons to dislike each of the three proposed extensions of the light rail system he once declared would be built:
"We're going to dig and dig and dig and dig until the light-rail project gets to Bellevue, gets to Everett, gets to Tacoma..."

- Ron Sims, 2003
Ron, you're entitled to your view about which routes are best, but so is everybody else. Sound Transit has selected track alignments based on years of feedback it has collected from the public. It's unfortunate that you can't support the decisions that have been made by the board you once chaired.

Where were your concerns when this proposal was being crafted? Why did you sign on to this plan if you're not even willing to vote for it yourself? Why the mixed signals? You've appeared to be quietly supportive, firmly neutral, and resolutely opposed all within the last twelve months. That's not the bold leadership you're known for, it's indecision and uncertainty.

You've let down a significant number of people with your change of heart: people who took you at your word when you said you were not opposed to the Roads & Transit package. And rather than communicating your feelings to other civic leaders (like giving your colleagues on the ST Board advance warning) you chose to make a dramatic statement by submitting a guest editorial to the Seattle Times.

We are profoundly disappointed in you.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Northwest PROGRESSIVE Institue?

Bashing a true progressive politician who makes a principled stand against global warming?

Supporting a massive increase in the regressive sales tax when Washington is already the most regressive tax state in the nation?

Supporting building a hundred million dollar plus lid in Medina (Washington's wealthiest neighborhood) to slightly lessen Bill Gates' noise pollution?

I'm sorry, but that doesn't sound very progressive to me.

I salute Ron Sims. He came out and said that the first consideration of public policy has to be the impact on global warming.

Did he change his mind from where he was five years ago? Hell yes. That's exactly what climate scientists, real environmental organizations and Al Gore have been asking people to do. Think about the new information and CHANGE THEIR MIND.

You say the establishment is upset with him. To a true progressive, that's great news.

You're upset that he didn't give other politicians enough "warning." Truly pathetic.

September 28, 2007 1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am appalled by Ron Sims' decision to oppose Proposition 1. As King County Executive, it is the very core of his job to identify serious regional problems like transportation, and build a consensus behind long-term solutions. Political leaders throughout the region have spent years developing the package of road, rail and other improvements in Proposition 1. The measure offers relief to long-suffering drivers and transit riders all over Puget Sound. Sims apparently was unable to use his position and influence to change the package to his liking, and that makes it all the more irresponsible for him to oppose it.

September 28, 2007 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's also (not so) funny that Ron was more than willing to barnstorm for a regressive sales tax increase last year for Transit Now, but now that it's for some purpose other than building his own personal King County/Metro empire, the sales tax is evil.

September 28, 2007 10:19 PM  

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