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, December 20, 2007

The ghost of transportation governance schemes past is returning

Earlier this year, during the 2007 legislative session, I wrote extensively about an inane plan concocted in Olympia to consolidate roads and transit planning into the hands of a powerful "regional" super commission that would have control over routes, fares, projects, ballot proposals, and other critical aspects of the local transportation system in central Puget Sound counties.

This governance scheme, which passed the Senate in the form of SB 5803 but failed to make it out of the House, is now back from the dead. And it has found a new patroness in Governor Christine Gregoire, as Tacoma News Tribune editor David Seago relates in a post on late Tuesday:
During her visit with the TNT [Tacoma News Tribune] editorial board today, Gov. Chris Gregoire declared, "It's time we had a heavy-duty conversation about governance" in the wake of Proposition 1's drubbing at the polls.

The governor said she was prepared to introduce her own RTG legislation for the 2008 session, but she agreed to let state Sens. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, and Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, take the lead in crafting a proposal.

Gregoire reminded us that a blue-ribbon panel led by former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and businessman John Stanton in 2006 had recommended putting regional road and transit authority in the hands of one body consisting mostly of directly elected members.

RTG means no more Sound Transit, no more Regional Transportation Improvement District - bodies comprised of elected city and county officials from Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.

And the notion of "sub-area equity," Gregoire said emphatically, has got to go. That gave us a little shudder, because the principle that the money raised in each county should be spent each county is pretty much Holy Writ in Pierce and Snohomish counties.
A conversation about governance? That got started long ago, and is still going on...between a society of pundits, lawmakers, editorial writers, and others who see a shakeup as an opportunity to squelch development of high capacity rapid transit (which they despise). One of the area's fiercest anti-rail zealots admitted as much Tuesday in a piece on Crosscut:
It would not stop light rail construction in place, but it would limit construction to a line running from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to either Convention Place, Husky Stadium, or Northgate.

Future funding would be focused more greatly on express bus, bus rapid transit, and normal bus service; dedicated transit lanes; HOV lanes; tolling; and selective repair and expansion of long neglected local roads and lifeline highways. Citywide trolleys (touted by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels) definitely would not be part of the scheme.
Yes, Ted Van Dyk hates light rail so much that he is already relishing the mere thought of the Link endeavor being shut down and forgotten about courtesy of a newly knighted troupe of transportation czars - even though the Legislature hasn't mandated the implementation of a governance scheme and isn't even in session.

If Van Dyk really thinks a shakeup is inevitable, he is mistaken. In fact, it appears that one of the legislators that Governor Gregoire is counting on to craft a proposal - the primary sponsor of SB 5803! - has no intention of doing so. From a comment left at the Seattle Transit Blog by Senator Ed Murray:
I have no current plans to work on a regional proposal. No one has shown much interest.

I support ST [Sound Transit] going to the ballot this fall should they make that decision and will oppose any efforts in the legislature to prevent them.

My interest in regional issues remains one of planning. We fail to look at the best way to move people and focus on road corridors vs light rail corridors. That is not how you get to an integrated transportation system.

I am not responsible for the uniting [of] RTID and ST. I spent five years, including this year attempting to kill RTID legislatively. The RTID board and their legislative supporters will tell you they considered me their biggest problem in Olympia.

Actually I can provide you with the tapes of the hearings that clearly show my record on this brain dead republican idea.

It was ST board members, including ST's board chair who insisted they be join and stay joined. I did agree with the Gov to put them together in hopes that we would come up with a better RTID, I was wrong (as I have said for the past year).
So, no one has shown much interest, eh? Perhaps that's because the small clique that wants this governance shakeup is, well, small.

We're heartened by Ed's comments, and appreciative of his support for Sound Transit returning to the ballot next November.

Chartering and empowering a new band of well paid politicians from sprawling cross country districts to control transportation decision making is not an idea that will solve our infrastructure problems.

It won't make anyone's commute greener, safer, or more reliable. It won't replace the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge or eliminate dangerous chokepoints. It won't build new park and rides or ease gridlock.

All a governance shakeup does is create a host of new problems and delay our ability to move forward. In a word, it's unnecessary. Polling from EMC Research and Moore Information shows that public confidence in Sound Transit is higher than it is in the state Department of Transportation, which is headquartered in Olympia and answers directly to the governor.

Critics of Sound Transit see a governance shakeup as an opportunity to abolish or render toothless an effective public agency working to plan, design, and construct a rail backbone for Puget Sound - an idea they abhor.

Stopping light rail is their agenda, and they don't mind if that means a temporary lack of progress in delivering transit solutions and road fixes for clogged corridors. In their view, hang the cost. Taxpayers don't benefit from awarding tremendous power to a new authority with no track record, but ST's critics do.

With Sound Transit reduced to a paper entity, additions to the Link system can be scrapped and buried beneath a pile of road projects.

And forget new streetcar lines too: as Ted candidly says in his own words, the only transit worth funding is buses.

Some advocates of governance, like Representative Deb Eddy, will deny that their aim is to prevent the construction of a rail network for Puget Sound.

And while they may mean well, they are playing right into the hands of anti-rail fanatics like Van Dyk and business tycoons like John Stanton, who is currently pouring money into a right wing initiative to make King County's elected offices nonpartisan (thereby allowing Republicans a chance to gain more power in the state's most Democratic county).

Stanton, along with Norm Rice, chaired the group that recommended a governance shakeup to the Legislature at the beginning of the 2007 session.

Their suggestions eventually took shape as SB 5803, which passed the Senate with only nominal opposition, less than a few hours after I published my initial analysis deconstructing the bill.

The commission of transportation czars that SB 5803 tried to engineer had a number of built in features intended to ensure a funeral for rail:
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).
It would also have had jurisdiction over both roads and transit, with the freedom to decide how much money to allocate to which "mobility projects" - and no requirement for any amount to be spent on the development of rapid transit.

We understand the argument that we need greater coordination between the many governments that build or operate our transportation systems. Increasing cooperation and integration isn't a bad idea.

But carving up existing agencies and sacrificing home rule in favor of centralizing authority for transportation in the hands of a newly empowered club of politicians is a poor way to achieve a worthy goal.

We believe that Sound Transit should bring a refined version of its Phase 2 package before the people in 2008. We will oppose any legislation that attempts to bar Sound Transit from doing so. Olympia has already meddled with Sound Transit before - prohibiting the agency from going to the ballot in 2006 and forcibly hitching it to the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID).

The marriage may have had the support of some officials involved with both ST and RTID, but it was fixed up hastily on Olympia at the end of the 2006 session without much public input, to the consternation of many on the agency's board.

Despite the defeat of Proposition 1, voters still trust Sound Transit, which just announced it will be receiving new round of federal funding for Central Link:
Thanks to the work of Sen. Patty Murray and the other members of the region’s congressional delegation, the Central Puget Sound region is set to receive $88.2 million to help finish one major light rail project and launch another that will carry even more riders.

The funding is part of the 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Bill approved by Congress last night and is now on its way to the President’s desk. Of particular note, the bill includes $19.6 million in early funding for extending light rail from downtown Seattle to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington. Sound Transit is working to start building the University Link project next year with a $750 million grant the agency is seeking from the Federal Transit Administration.
Olympia should refrain from interfering with or obstructing Sound Transit's progress. The last thing we need is a governance scheme.

Lawmakers should allow the agency to determine its own direction based on feedback from riders and taxpayers.

And if Sound Transit asks for the ability to tap different revenue sources based on that feedback, lawmakers should grant the request.


Post a Comment

<< Home