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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Haugen having trouble moving governance scheme out of Transportation Committee

A few weeks ago, in mid-January, we warned that a new version of last year's transportation governance monster, SSB 5803, was being introduced in the Senate by Transportation Committee Chair Mary Margaret Haugen. SB 6772, like its predecessor, attempts to create a super commission of transportation czars with authority over planning both highways and transit systems.

The big difference between the 2007 bill and this year's is that the vehicle being used is different. Whereas 5803 tried to engineer a new transportation agency with broad authority that would float on top of everything else we've got, Haugen's 6772 would simply change Sound Transit into Sound Transportation.

The old plan's major facet remains unchanged: setting up a new board of well paid politicians who will be elected from new, sprawling districts spanning King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. They would serve six year terms.

Governance proponents, including John Stanton, the Seattle Times, Republican legislators, Senator Haugen, and others claim that Sound Transit (or the Sound Transportation entity they wish to create) needs an elected board so it is accountable to the people. What they never admit in their arguments is that Sound Transit already has an elected board.

See for yourself. Here are the current members of the board:
  • Greg Nickels, Mayor of Seattle, Sound Transit Board Chair
  • Claudia Thomas, City Councilmember of Lakewood
  • Aaron Reardon, Snohomish County Executive
  • Julie Anderson, City Councilmember of Tacoma
  • Mary-Alyce Burleigh, City Councilmember of Kirkland
  • Fred Butler, Deputy City Council President of Issaquah
  • Richard Conlin, City Council President, of Seattle
  • Dow Constantine, King County Council Vice Chair
  • Deanna Dawson, City Councilmember of Edmonds
  • David Enslow, Mayor of Sumner
  • Paula Hammond, Secretary, State Department of Transportation
  • John Ladenburg, Pierce County Executive
  • John Marchione, Mayor of Redmond
  • Julia Patterson, King County Council Chair
  • Larry Phillips, King County Councilmember
  • Paul Roberts, City Councilmember of Everett
  • Ron Sims, King County Executive
  • Pete von Reichbauer, King County Councilmember
Which of these is not an elected official? Only one - Paula Hammond, who runs the Department of Transportation and answers to the governor.

The rest are all public servants - from across Puget Sound!

True, they are indirectly elected to the Sound Transit board, but there's a reason the agency has what is known as a federated system. (As you might suspect, federalism is a related idea. If you were sleeping in civic class, it's the governing model used to divide power in the United States of America).

Consider the advantages of having a federated board:
  • Diversity: A federated board ensures that all the people of the Sound Transit district are well represented. Urban, suburban, and unincorporated areas each have a voice on the eighteen member board.
  • Cities Represented: Under the federated board, local governments are represented at the table, especially cities. A third of Sound Transit's board members serve as mayors or on city councils.
  • Simplicity: Board members represent existing jurisdictions instead of sprawling districts that cross county lines. That eliminates confusion for voters, who already understand the concept of electing legislators and executives to run their respective city (if they live in one) and county.
  • Broad perspective: Because seventeen out of eighteen board members come directly from city and county government, they are always working on related issues such as land use and economic development back home, so their sole focus is not merely transportation. This broad perspective enables the board to make better informed decisions.
Contrast Sound Transit's federated board with the Seattle Port Commission, whose five members are directly elected by the people of King County. The Port is under investigation by the Department of Justice and is still recovering from the corrupt administration of ousted executive Mic Dinsmore. The Port Commission has seen significant turnover the last few election cycles.

Meanwhile, Sound Transit is earning top grades in audit after audit, receiving high bond ratings, and getting projects done on time and under budget. Just yesterday it became the sixth transit agency in the United States (and the first on the Left Coast) to be certified as compliant with rigorous international standards for promoting environmental sustainability.

So which model works better? A federated system with indirectly elected board members who are each responsible to a smaller group of constituents, or a less visible, directly elected board of politicians supposedly accountable to a larger group of voters? Recent history leads us to conclude a federated board is better, hands down. But if Mary Margaret Haugen's SB 6772 goes into effect, Sound Transit's effective federated board will be gutted and replaced with a new group of politicians who will be elected from a set of newly drawn subdistricts.

And remember, Haugen's proposal calls for the terms of office of these transportation czars to be six years!

If elections are so wonderful, as governance proponents say, why not require these guys to stand for election every year?

Answer: Because governance proponents want to be able to buy seats on the board and then give the board the authority to increase revenue for road building without a public vote. The six year terms are purposely intended to insulate the new board from the people it's supposed to be accountable to. How ironic.

The other key component of the hostile takeover plan is the provision that forcibly sticks responsbility for planning and building highways to Sound Transit like glue, unwisely cementing the failed roads and transit experiment in place for years.

Back in November 2007, shortly after the failure of Proposition 1, EMC Research and Moore Information asked voters why they voted against the measure down. The responses proved that the No campaign was successful in distorting the math: voters said the package was too expensive and lacked cost control.

But respondents also said the package was too big and too complex thanks to the coupling of Sound Transit 2 and RTID's Blueprint for Progress (the roads plan):
Another insight from the poll: voters didn't like Olympia's meddling - the forcible pairing of roads and transit together in one package. NPI was uncomfortable with the marriage beginning with the day the stealth legislation emerged out of the statehouse, and voters hate the idea.

By a whopping 72% to 23% margin, respondents say they prefer separate roads & transit measures - clear evidence that Sound Transit 2 should stand on its own in a future vote without being tied to any roads package.
The message from the electorate is clear: don't present a combined roads and transit package before us again. We want to consider them seperately.

Unfortunately, Senator Haugen isn't listening, because her bill (which has only a handful of cosponsors) welds roads and transit together tightly and permanently under the auspices of "Sound Transportation".

She also seems to be confused about where she lives. During the public hearing on SB 6772 last week, which Haugen scheduled for Super Tuesday, she attacked the idea of a federated board, complaining that her constituents don't know who their Sound Transit board members are. "It's a real concern that my citizens have. Who is my person?" Haugen told Sound Transit board member Claudia Thomas.

There is however, a very good reason why Haugen's constituents wouldn't know that information: none of them live in Sound Transit's taxing district.

Haugen must be imagining things.

Haugen is mistaken when she characterizes the federated system as invisible - as she did during the hearing. We suspect that the typical Puget Sound resident, if asked, would be able to correctly name more Sound Transit boardmembers than Port of Seattle commissioners.

That's because almost all of the agency's boardmembers serve in visible elected roles - as mayors, county executives, or councilmembers.

Since the hearing last week, Haugen has been preparing to move the bill out of committee, but she has been beset with problems. First, many of the Democrats on the committee are skeptical of the bill, including Vice Chair Ed Murray, the sponsor of last year's version (SSB 5803), who is now against a shakeup.

And second, the committee's Republicans (who favor SB 6772) have upstaged Haugen. On Monday, they demanded an early vote on SB 6772, which failed, and yesterday, they brought up the bill again, but an irritated Haugen simply moved the executive session along to another bill.

So SB 6772, amusingly, remains stuck in committee, surprising many observers who had anticipated it would be heading to the Senate floor. We hope the bill will stay in committee and die there. Washington State will not benefit from this counterproductive legislation.

What we need instead is meaningful and responsive leadership from Olympia.

It is time for the Legislature to stop passing the buck to local leaders in Puget Sound and acknowledge that the state is responsibile for building and properly maintaining Washington's highways, includng the ferry system. Money for highway resurfacing, maintenance, ferries, terminals, and associated costs needs to come from the state's treasury.

The Washington State Constitution clearly establishes this responsibility and requires that certain taxes be used for nothing else:

SECTION 40 HIGHWAY FUNDS. All fees collected by the State of Washington as license fees for motor vehicles and all excise taxes collected by the State of Washington on the sale, distribution or use of motor vehicle fuel and all other state revenue intended to be used for highway purposes, shall be paid into the state treasury and placed in a special fund to be used exclusively for highway purposes. Such highway purposes shall be construed to include the following:

(a) The necessary operating, engineering and legal expenses connected with the administration of public highways, county roads and city streets;

(b) The construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, and betterment of public highways, county roads, bridges and city streets; including the cost and expense of (1) acquisition of rights-of-way, (2) installing, maintaining and operating traffic signs and signal lights, (3) policing by the state of public highways, (4) operation of movable span bridges, (5) operation of ferries which are a part of any public highway, county road, or city street;

(c) The payment or refunding of any obligation of the State of Washington, or any political subdivision thereof, for which any of the revenues described in section 1 may have been legally pledged prior to the effective date of this act;

(d) Refunds authorized by law for taxes paid on motor vehicle fuels;

(e) The cost of collection of any revenues described in this section:

Provided, That this section shall not be construed to include revenue from general or special taxes or excises not levied primarily for highway purposes, or apply to vehicle operator's license fees or any excise tax imposed on motor vehicles or the use thereof in lieu of a property tax thereon, or fees for certificates of ownership of motor vehicles.
To summarize, state highways are the responsibility of the state.

When I drive or take the bus to Seattle, I'm not riding along on Puget Sound Route 520; I'm on State Route 520.

It is Olympia's job to find the money to pay for improvements to (and upkeep of) our highways. This job should not be jettisoned or delegated.

It is also the Legislature's job to provide Puget Sound with the tools and the authority to allow for the construction and operation of a regional rapid transit network. This was why Sound Transit was created in the 1990s.

Legislators need to drop this governance nonsense, allow Sound Transit to tap revenue sources that are more palatable to voters than the sales tax (so it can fulfill its mission), and finish the work that was started in three years ago with the passage of the 2005 Transportation Package.

Senator Haugen's committee, and Representative Clibborn's committee, need to be talking about replacing the Evergreen Point bridge and Columbia River Crossing, cancelling the widening of Interstate 405 (which is not only pointless but unaffordable), looking at the challenges involved with demolishing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, fixing our decaying ferry system, exploring ways to help other urban areas like Spokane and Clark County/Vancouver deal with growth and increased traffic, as well as providing help to Sound Transit - not wasting the people's time with ill-conceived governance schemes.


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