NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

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 Sal­daña, 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.

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