Coming from our discussion over the last day of where to put our next rail spine, I want to make the case for voting to extend what we have this year, in the November general election, rather than delaying for two years.
The big argument for waiting until 2010 is that we’ll see light rail in operation for a year – people will have a chance to ride it. I think this would have a positive impact, but that impact would be much smaller than the huge positive turnout impact of presidential and gubernatorial elections. It seems that most of the potential riders – those who will be directly affected – are already galvanized. They’re either aware of and looking forward to having the system online, or else they’re shaking their fists at Sound Transit for causing construction delays and road closures. Having rail open won’t change the minds of anti-transit detractors, it’ll just give them two more years to think up new smears.
This year we will really benefit from strong turnout for the top of the ticket. Barack Obama is on the ballot – easily the most well spoken and charismatic Democratic presidential candidate in decades. Voter turnout was astronomical in the primaries, with some states seeing higher turnout than previous general elections. One of the reasons we failed last year was because it was an off year – there were no good candidates bringing people to the polls, only initiatives. Many of the regular off-year voters are motitvated by anger and frustration with government, and are very likely to vote against propositions and referenda. If Obama wins this year, we’ll be in a prime position to compete for the first new Federal Transit Administration grants from a more transit friendly administration.
High gas prices will work for us this year as well. Yesterday we saw a $15B Amtrak reauthorization bill pass the US House with a veto-proof majority, after a similar showing in the Senate, on the heels of big increases in ridership on all of Amtrak’s routes, including our own Cascades. We’ve seen Sounder ridership jump dramatically, with most of the Sounder South trains standing room only, and overall ridership up some 30% over the same period last year. My bus to work is packed as ever, despite new service coming online recently and some of the trips only 5 minutes apart. The cheap gas is $4.39 down the street from me – and that’s up from $4.29 a few days ago. If those prices keep up, we’re going to keep seeing the ridership gains we have been, which means more people aware of and interested in a better way to work. We don’t know what gas prices will be like in 2010 – some of our current run-up in oil futures is due to speculation, and some of that money will return to securities as the real estate bust smooths out.
This year, constitutents are looking for solutions. Government at all levels is commonly criticized for being behind the times, being unable to respond quickly to changes. We shouldn’t wait two years before submitting a plan to voters, when they are looking for something now. This is a great chance for Sound Transit to show that they have a plan and they’re ready to take action. The fact that the retooled ST2 plans are accelerated works strongly to our advantage – and with University Link construction beginning next year, to the untrained eye Sound Transit will get credit for groundbreaking only months after a vote. You can’t buy PR like that.
Look at all the things 2008 gives us: High gas prices make people want an alternative. Unprecedented gains in transit ridership show that we have strong and growing demand. Obama and Gregoire ensure that we’ll have great progressive turnout who will support transit projects. Let’s put ST2 on the ballot this November.