This is more critical than I usually am, but I think discussion lately warrants it.

Prop 1 failed last year partly because of the RTID, partly because people were led to believe it was “big” by deceptive reporting from the Times and PI, and finally, (this is the harsh part) partly because the campaign and Sound Transit were barely visible to combat the opposition.

Of those three, RTID wasn’t really something we could fix locally – but we don’t have to deal with it this year. Biased reporting is something we’re just going to have to live with – the Times editorial board hates the idea of losing their SOV express lane commutes from Mercer Island, for example. We do have allies in the Tacoma News Tribune, the Herald papers, and others.

The third issue is something it’s hard for Sound Transit to get involved in. They are not part of the campaign – they can inform us of upcoming plans and advertise their services, but within quite strict limits. Usually, if Sound Transit isn’t doing some kind of advertising you think they should do, there’s a good reason. Just look at the KIRO “investigative” crap we’ve just seen – Sound Transit pays the Transportation Choices Coalition for their work to inform the public about transit options, an effective use of their advertising and outreach dollars, and even that gets them hit hard in our media. Sound Transit has to be careful about what they say and do, because there are a lot of very vocal detractors that love to spin.

That said, here are the key areas where I think Sound Transit can – and must – improve, if it hopes to win this election and stave off interference (or outright destruction) from Olympia come next session.

First, we need an outline for a future package to offer those who won’t be served by this one, to frame the issue as “when”, not as “if”. ST2 last year came from a cafeteria plan of options, some of which would be in ST3. There’s a long range plan – use it to your advantage! Snohomish County wants light rail to Everett. Ballard and West Seattle want service. Issaquah and Redmond are desperate for options. These are things that could be in ST3, so draw a map and say “this is a concept of what another .5% in ten years could get us”. As far as the 20 year plan goes, mention what Salt Lake City did with an acceleration vote later, and point out that a new vote in another few years could cut several years off implementation. If Sound Transit needs more taxing authority from Olympia to make that happen, tell us! Playing defensively right now is playing to lose – help us move the debate to a point where it is already assumed that ST2 is good and necessary.

We also desperately need a simple, graphical explanation of what ST2 projects cost (in 2008 dollars) and which major projects would come from each subarea’s funds. Perhaps show the proportions of the large expenditures on a nice chart or graph in the corner of a map of the projects, delineated with subarea boundaries, so that people see where their money is going, and make it very clear that the spending is proportional to the tax revenues. This is a huge sticking point – people in Snohomish and Pierce just assume their money is going to Seattle. That’s a reality of near rural and exurban politics. Subarea equity was given to Sound Transit as a tool to combat that view, so use it! Don’t wait until we pick a plan – do one for 12, 15, and 20 year. It doesn’t have to be to four significant figures, it just has to get out there. I’d have done it myself, but I can’t find subarea tax revenues in the financial docs.

Finally, framing. The way outreach is framed is absolutely key. When ridership is recalculated for a vote this year (and it should be, with all the construction starts in our core corridors), we need to head off at the pass the trash argument saying that light rail doesn’t carry very many trips. Frame ridership in terms of something we already understand, like: “300,000 riders per day – more than SR-520 and I-90 combined.” Address the cost of the package in terms of what the same money buys us in other modes – compare $11 billion in light rail to the $11 billion (more in today’s dollars) of the 405 widening – three times the trips, twice the mileage, with no congestion! Construction timeline is also very important to frame – don’t say Northgate in 20xx – say Northgate two years after University Link. Don’t say Overlake in 20xx, say Bellevue in eight years and Overlake four years later. Most people don’t do the math, they just hear the smaller numbers. Overall, don’t let the media pretend that the whole system opens when the last leg opens, make them address things in terms of Central Link and University Link. This also helps keep the public eye on the current projects – most people don’t even know U Link exists.

Everything last year was approached from the view that giving out information would make people like light rail and support it. Linguists have known since the 60s that framing matters – the way arguments are presented, and how we relate the new ideas to ideas we already understand – matters as much as (if not more) than the information. We ended up, though, with a lot of numbers that were easy for media and the opposition to spin to create sensational arguments.

So to those reading who might have an impact: I’m not exactly an authority on PR, so take my arguments with a grain of salt. I love the open houses and public outreach, but there are major pieces missing from the messages they carry. We need to see a game plan for those who don’t get what they want immediately. We need to nail home the understanding that we can’t just use Pierce money to get light rail into Snohomish. We need to address the way light rail expansion is attacked by approaching outreach less matter-of-factly – fewer numbers, more comparisons to things people understand. While these arguments did exist last year if one looked for them, they were not well integrated into the overall outreach story. The stakes are much too high to play the same game again.

19 Replies to “What We Need From Sound Transit”

  1. Seriously, I didn’t even know U Link was a completed plan, moving forward and (apparently?) funded thing until awhile ago and I’m a transit follower/supporter. I went to the Cap Hill station 60% design review and was like “holy crap, this thing is actually happening!”

    1. I know. I run into people daily who have no idea. That, at least, will be fixed next year.

      Some “future site of subway station” signs on the roofs of the buildings at Broadway and John would do some good, and a couple along Montlake wouldn’t be bad either! I don’t think those are ST property yet, though.

  2. Have you e-mailed this to the ST board? Mayor Nickels and Joni Earl are both amazingly receptive to this sort of thing, especially since you have a heavy emotional investment in the matter.

    The acceleration vote is an amazing point that I’d never thought of. I’d go further to say that they could investigate the possibility of exactly when to do it. That would rock!

    1. Sending to the board is a fantastic idea. I’m hesitant to send this sort of thing to higher ups because I’m concerned it could result in top-down micromanagement and pain for the people actually doing the work. I’ll think about how I could present it in a way that would suggest enabling rather than directing.

      1. I’d say preparing a fully featured document would be your best route. Prepare a summary memo of the document and send it all as one piece to the board as a whole, cc’ing Mayor Nickels and Joni Earl.

        Marketing it as a document of “Consumer Concerns” with a subheader mentioning its purpose as a vision document would go a long way.

        You can easily use comments from your blog and other similar blogs (with permission, CiL and Buschick are good blogs to look at) to gain footing. Your own understanding of what other cities did and why is an absolute asset, and would certainly be good to work into a “planning for the future” section.

        It should be easily summarized, formatted in a way that can be highlighted, and should include a separate document that details the examples of other cities. I think that document would be one of the more important pieces of this.

        It shouldn’t take too long to prepare, given the long running conversations this blog has put forth and all the studies ST has put out detailing in a pretty clear picture exactly why ST2 failed.

        And the other idea of mentioning ST3 is a good one, especially if given a “when we get to that bridge” context saying “if all goes right, going to the citizens of this ever-growing region with an extension or repurposing ST2.1 funding seems to be a likely-to-pass situation.” — that we, they realize that most everyone, while they want it “now now now”, is probably going to be fine with a well-reasoned “when we get there” approach.

  3. I think ST would improve with more tough but fair criticism on all fronts from someone as vocally pro-transit as the people on this blog. This is especially true with how they communicate with the public – very poorly worder, slow reaction times, etc.

    People need to be willing to think like the “enemy” (Kemper Freeman, etc) and actually anticipate the anti-transit arguments and not just blow sunshine up asses when preparing materials.

    1. Do remember that Sound Transit can’t be part of the campaign. It’s not their job to think like the enemy – it’s just their job not to be their own enemy.

      1. I know that they can’t. But they ought to anticipate lines of attack better for all the schmoes in the trenches – you know, trumpet things from the right angle rather than presenting nice (but unsexy) numbers and cool (but uninteresting) brochures and such.

        Just like you said – talk about $11 billion to move X people per mile or per day or per mile per day. Don’t talk about total ridership figures, no one gives a shit about those except transit geeks.

      2. They really should anticipate better, I totally agree.

        I’m betting that the people on the front lines at ST *do* think of a lot of this (and more), but that it’s not codified into best practices or into public documents, or maybe the flexibility isn’t there. I don’t know, so I’m bringing it up. :)

  4. I feel like both an acceleration vote and pre-announcing ST3 open up the ST2.1 debate to complains that we’re just going to get taxed more-and-more in the future.

    1. You’re right, and that’s difficult. The thing is, most of the district DOES want transit. Most of the negative arguments we’ve been seeing are “it’s not getting to me” or “it’s not fast enough”, not “I don’t want it.” People do understand that infrastructure costs money – and they’re willing to pay for it. They just feel like they’re not getting much at all for the money they’re already paying.

      That’s where framing comes in. “For the price of one tank of gas a year” is great. Comparing to the equivalent capacity of highway is great. Frame things in terms of what people already want – uncongested transportation – and then show them how much cheaper it is.

  5. While I like the fact that ST “uses” Transportation Choices for marketing, ST needs to do more under their own brand. Instead of debating what to do next, ST should have been using the dramatic increase in fuel prices over the past year to make the case for an ’08 ballot measure. There is much educating of the public that still needs to happen – ST is the one that should be doing it.

    1. ST isn’t a single entity, remember. Some board members have been actively speaking out for an ’08 vote – Nickels and Phillips certainly have.

      But ST doesn’t hold all the cards when it comes to educating the public. Many people who don’t listen to ST do listen to TCC – it’s very important to remember that the individuals who do the networking are more important to the connection than the message, and TCC has had a lot of success approaching businesses and nonprofits that Sound Transit hasn’t. It’s cheaper to leverage an existing relationship than to try to build a new one – they’re saving your tax dollars.

  6. Slightly off-topic, but I’m wondering what the financing structure of Sound Transit is?

    Do they have any bonding authority or is it strictly pay-as-you-go via the sales tax revenue?

    1. They have bonding authority based on their tax revenue, and have issued bonds for a lot of their capital projects. I don’t know if the University Link bonds have actually been issued or not, but they’re on track to do that as well.

      They do combine pay as you go with bonds, so that they don’t rely too heavily on bond revenue.

    1. It’s a load of bullshit. This is just negative propaganda – it’s already been audited twice. TCC also receives annual independent audits, they’re a 501c3. EVERYTHING here is clean, except for the Washington Policy Center and whoever didn’t do any fact checking at KIRO.

Comments are closed.