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Senate Republicans advance new scheme to mess with Sound Transit’s governance

Picking up where Mary Margaret Haugen and Ed Murray once left off, Republicans on the Senate Transportation Committee voted today to advance a bill that would wipe out Sound Transit’s federated board of city and county leadership and replace it with a panel of transportation czars elected from eleven newly drawn transportation districts in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties.

Substitute Senate Bill 5001 moved out of the Senate Transportation Committee today with support from all of the panel’s Republican members, plus Democrats Steve Hobbs and Kevin Van De Wege. Democratic Senators Marko Liias, Annette Cleveland, Rebecca SaldaƱa, and Dean Takko voted against moving the bill.

SSB 5001 is the latest in a long series of failed attempts by the Washington State Senate to shred the governance structure for Sound Transit that the Legislature originally created in the 1990s. A decade has now transpired since NPI first took up the cause of fighting these counterproductive proposals.

In that time, Sound Transit has opened and thrice expanded its first light rail line, expanded Sounder commuter rail, expanded ST Express bus service, and twice won approval from regional voters to keep on expanding service in all directions. Ridership across the system is booming, and Sound Transit has kept on rolling, delivering projects at a brisk and steady pace.

Senate Republicans don’t like that and have this ridiculous, perverse desire to mess with success. Sound Transit is rolling along and they want to derail its progress.

Prior to this year’s legislative session, Republican Senator Steve O’Ban (R-28th District; Lakewood, University Place, Tacoma) served notice that he would be bringing a bill to dissolve the Sound Transit board and replace it with a panel of transportation czars elected from a set of newly drawn districts that no one would be able to keep track of (except, of course, for the campaign consultants whose job it would be to get people elected in those districts).

O’Ban’s Senate Bill 5001 underwent some modifications when it was replaced with a substitute in committee, but it’s basically the same awful bill.

Ahead of the vote, NPI sent a message to all of the members of the Senate Transportation Committee asking that O’Ban’s 5001 be abandoned and that the committeemembers turn their attention to more productive tasks. We even gave an example of how the Legislature could be of service:

We ask that as legislators with a focus on transportation, you direct your energies to supporting the work voters have authorized Sound Transit to do instead of messing with how ST is governed.

Sound Transit 3 (ST3) will be even more beneficial if we can accelerate the timetable for the delivery of projects, and add value by extending projects further with some state funding.

For example, we’re going to be spending quite a bit of money to bring Sounder south to DuPont. That investment will make even more sense if Sound Transit were permitted to expand Sounder service all the way to Olympia in a partnership with WSDOT and Intercity Transit.

Olympia is not that much further than DuPont, but it’s outside of ST’s service area. The Legislature should offer to help make Sounder to Olympia a reality by passing legislation to enable the necessary, long-term interlocal cooperation.

Imagine being able to commute to Olympia by train in the future from King and Pierce counties, bypassing that horrible JBLM traffic and being able to step off the train in downtown Olympia and catch a Dash shuttle to the campus. Wouldn’t that be great? Exploring what’s necessary to make that future a reality is what you should be be spending your time on, not this legislation.

Sadly, a majority of the members of the committee did not heed our request. We will therefore step up our efforts to ensure that SSB 5001 is defeated.

It is important to understand that the organizations pushing for this bill, like the Washington Policy Center, are on a long-term mission to undermine and destroy Sound Transit. They are not motivated by a desire to make transit work better.

Sound Transit is funded by multiple voter-approved revenue streams, and ideological, anti-rail right wing Republicans are desperate to get their hands on that money. They’d like to redirect as much of it as possible into roads — or, at least, in the words of John Carlson — “rubber tire” transit, which has to operate on roads.

Wiping out Sound Transit’s federated board and mandating that its replacement be a panel of transportation czars from nineteen separate districts would give them a decent chance of taking control of the agency, its projects, and its revenue.

A majority of the eleven districts the revised bill calls for (the original bill specified nineteen) would conceivably consist of turf either very friendly to right wing candidates, or at least winnable by right wing candidates.

The federated board Sound Transit has now is essentially invulnerable to a Kemper Freeman Jr.-funded hostile takeover, because its members are appointed by the county executives of King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties, who are also themselves members, along with the chieftain of WSDOT (currently Roger Millar).

The Democratic Party has been successful in keeping the executives of King and Snohomish counties in Democratic, pro-transit hands for many consecutive election cycles. Republicans have done better in Pierce County, and now have one of their own as Pierce County Executive, but he is just one board member out of eighteen.

When O’Ban and others talk about the need for Sound Transit to have a “directly elected” board, they’re being disingenuous.

Except for Millar, ST’s board is already directly elected. Its other seventeen members are all mayors, county executives, and city or council councilmembers…. people that we in Puget Sound elected to make important decisions about land use, stormwater runoff, and yes, transportation.

Sound Transit would have a tough time delivering projects smoothly without the cooperation of city and county governments. It therefore makes perfect sense that ST is governed by representatives of its city and county partners.

After a rocky start, Sound Transit is now doing very well. It has experienced leadership and sound governance. Its public approval ratings are higher than WSDOT’s. The federated board model the Legislature originally came up with for Sound Transit clearly works. There is no need to discard it.

Washington already has thousands upon thousands special districts that most voters cannot keep track of. Fire districts, hospital districts, water districts, sewer districts, even cemetery districts… we’ve got a plethora of each. That’s on top of our city governments, county governments, school districts, and ports, which all operate below the state and federal governments.

Republicans are constantly saying that we need less government, but as we have seen, their actions belie their words. They are not for smaller government at all. In fact, it is big government that they like, as was proved during the Bush error, and will be proved again over the course of the next few years.

How many times have you heard a prominent Republican say we should slash funding for the Department of Defense, or the FBI, or the NSA, or the Secret Service, or the DEA? It’s rare. Plenty of Republicans are for gutting public agencies and departments that were formed using the logic of progressive values, like the Environmental Protection Agency. But very few want to take an axe to the defense budget and reform procurement or eliminate wasteful contracts.

Similarly, at the state level, you won’t hear Republicans say we should stop putting money into highways or prisons. You will hear Republicans grumble endlessly about Sound Transit and its “choo choo trains”. It doesn’t matter to them that Sound Transit went out and won voter approval for its projects and financing mix. Republicans resent that Washington State is investing heavily in light rail, and they’d like to pull the plug on that before the systems are built out.

This bill would create more government, but that’s not a problem for Senate Republicans, because once set up, they’d have a chance of controlling it. Never mind that it doesn’t comport with their stated principles. It is political power they desire, and this bill is a vehicle for allowing them to get what they want.

We can’t let them win. A society in which people are forced to drive to get where they want to go is not a free society. Mobility matters. The regional transit network Sound Transit is building, with a rail spine at its core, is vital to the future health and prosperity of our region. The Legislature gave Sound Transit life over twenty years ago; now, it must allow ST to carry out its voter-approved work.

If the Legislature desires to be helpful, that is welcome. Nefarious attempts to sabotage Sound Transit’s work such as SSB 5001 are not helpful and not welcome.

There’s a legitimate argument to be made that Puget Sound would benefit from having its own equivalent of TriMet (which provides service to greater Portland, Oregon) as opposed to four local transit agencies and one regional transit agency.

There is actually less duplication now than people think, because ST’s services are all operated by partners. King County Metro operates Central Link light rail, for instance, and Burlington Northern Santa Fe operates Sounder. ST Express buses are operated by Metro, Community Transit, and Pierce Transit. Sound Transit primarily exists to plan and build transit service that links the region together.

At some point down the line, it may make sense to unify our transit agencies. But we are not at that point now. Such a discussion will be more appropriate years from now when the regional system we’ve voted for is built out. As we learned from the merger of Metro and King County, such moves are very, very difficult to smoothly orchestrate. Sound Transit’s important, voter approved work deserves to be supported, not sabotaged. SSB 5001 can and must be defeated.