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Steve O’Ban’s scheme to mess with Sound Transit’s governance should be rejected

Recently reelected Republican State Senator Steve O’Ban announced a few days ago he plans to file a new bill that would dramatically change how Sound Transit is governed. O’Ban’s proposal would replace the agency’s effective federated board with a brand new board of transit commissioners that right wing millionaires like Kemper Freeman, Jr. could attempt to stack in periodic elections.

This actually isn’t a new idea — someone comes along and proposes it almost every legislative session. We’ve been editorializing against various incarnations of schemes to mess with Sound Transit for almost ten years here on the Cascadia Advocate.

But this promised bill doesn’t deserve to gain any traction during next year’s long legislative session, so we encourage other organizations and individual activists to join us and Seattle Transit Blog in speaking out against it now.

O’Ban obviously doesn’t care that Sound Transit just won a mandate from voters to expand light rail, Express bus service, and Sounder commuter rail with the passage of ST3, or that the Legislature itself made ST3 possible last year when it approved the Connecting Washington package, which gave Sound Transit the revenue authority it needed to finance the projects in the ST3 package.

No, O’Ban — like other members of the Senate Republican caucus — want to put as many bad ideas on the table as possible as the upcoming session approaches, both to distract us and dominate the public discourse.

Republicans want the narrative coming out of session to be driven by their agenda. They don’t want progressives going on offense again like we did in this recently-concluded election, where we advanced the causes of economic justice, gun responsibility, clean elections, and transit for all through a host of successful ballot measures. But staying on offense is exactly what we need to do.

Sound Transit leaders need to focus on delivering what the voters voted for, and we’re confident that they will — the important and necessary work of implementing ST3 has actually already begun.

Legislators like O’Ban, meanwhile, need to do their jobs.

The Legislature is presently in contempt of court for failing to uphold Article IX of our state Constitution (“It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.”)

Legislators like O’Ban — and Doug Ericksen and Michael Baumgartner — should be devoting their energies to complying with the Supreme Court’s orders to get our schools properly funded, not introducing bills to mess with Sound Transit’s governance or criminalize protests against the fossil fuel industry.

The critics don’t like to admit it, but Sound Transit already happens to be governed by individuals directly elected by voters in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. The only member of ST’s board who isn’t an elected official is the Secretary of Transportation (currently Roger Millar). The rest of the boardmembers are mayors, county executives, county councilmembers, and city councilmembers.

We trust and empower these same people to make important regional and local decisions about land use, stormwater runoff, building codes, and a host of other issues. The beauty of the federated board model is that it brings together elected leaders from both levels of local government (county and city) who have expertise delivering public services to the people of our region.

It’s been twenty years since the Sound Move vote of 1996, but it’s apparent there are still people out there who seem to not understand what Sound Transit actually is or really does — which is odd, considering ST’s high profile.

Sound Transit exists because visionary leaders like Ruth Fisher realized decades ago that building a useful regional transit system could not happen without regional cooperation. And so the Legislature created the Regional Transit Authority (which we know as Sound Transit) to enable central Puget Sound to come together to determine how best to link together its communities with high capacity transit.

Sound Transit was designed as a vehicle for cities and counties to join forces, pooling resources to improve mobility for millions of people. ST is not just a municipal corporation. It’s a forum — a space for collaboration.

A space where partnerships can be forged.

It is therefore appropriate that ST has a board consisting of city mayors, county executives, and city and county councilmembers, because ST’s most important partners are its constituent cities and counties.

But the list doesn’t end there.

Sound Transit does a lot of planning in-house, but it relies on partners to construct and operate all of its services. Its frequent project partners include the federal government (Federal Transit Administration), Washington State Department of Transportation, the Port of Seattle, and the University of Washington.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe operates Sounder commuter rail, King County Metro operates Link light rail, and Pierce Transit, Community Transit, and Metro each operate the many ST Express routes you’ll see on ST’s system map.

An even longer list of contractors and union workforces, meanwhile, provide the capital and labor needed to construct the infrastructure required to bring the projects Sound Transit and its partners conceive to fruition.

Now, governments everywhere regularly utilize partnerships to get things done. But Sound Transit doesn’t just utilize partnerships to succeed — it depends on them. The agency would be nowhere without its partnerships.

Sound Transit is fortunate, then, that it is governed by the people who represent its most important partners (counties and cities). And we, in turn, are fortunate Sound Transit was well designed, because transit for all is an essential need.

We want results, and ST is getting results for us.

It is a testament to CEO Emeritus Joni Earl and her staff that they have been able to bring all parties to the table to deliver Link light rail, ST Express, and Sounder to an increasing number of neighborhoods. This year alone, Sound Transit opened three new light rail stations: one at the southern end of the line and two at the northern end. More stations are already under construction.

Voters like what they see, and want more just as soon as can be arranged.

ST’s critics have been saying for years that Sound Transit’s governance stinks, even as the agency’s track record has gotten better and better.

But let’s face it: these critics want to shake up Sound Transit’s governance because they’re not in control of the agency and they want to be. They cannot credibly claim to have Sound Transit’s best interests at heart. They are not rooting for Sound Transit to succeed. They haven’t in the past and they are unlikely to in the future.

They do not want Puget Sound to invest in a rail spine that will liberate people from being forced to drive to get to where they want to go — even though that’s what the majority of the people keep demonstrating that they want.

Sound Transit is not like a port, school district, or water district, and it shouldn’t be managed like one. The people who keep insisting that we need to have a bunch of transportation commissioners running Sound Transit instead of the federated board we have now are principally insiders who want to stop Sound Transit from doing what it is doing — even in the wake of a successful public vote.

There is no outcry from the riding public to change how Sound Transit is governed.

Replacing Sound Transit’s current board won’t make it more accountable, won’t speed up delivery of projects, and won’t lead to better outcomes. Steve O’Ban’s proposed bill is counterproductive and doesn’t deserve to pass Go.

One Comment

  1. Posted November 22nd, 2016 at 8:28 PM | Permalink

    That name sounds a little too much like Steve Bannon.