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.