by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board
rta01Following the defeat of the March 14, 1995 RTA proposition, things looked bleak for mass transit in Metro Seattle. Despite a relatively close outcome, the votes were not evenly distributed – Seattle, Lake Forest Park and Mercer Island were the only jurisdictions that passed the measure – the rest of King County and both Pierce and Snohomish Counties voted no. In Everett, Light Rail was slightly less popular than Prohibition! There was no requirement that the plan pass in each separate county (just the overall district), but politically it was necessary to show broad support, not just from a Seattle dominated electorate.

Given the math, how could a majority of the RTA Board be convinced to put the measure on the ballot? To make matters worse, the RTA, which had been given revenue from the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax for planning, no longer had any income and no legislative support for additional dollars in Olympia. Could the agency even survive until the measure was resubmitted?

Critics often bemoan the absence of leadership in our civic affairs, but I would argue that our regional leaders responded to the defeat of the first RTA plan with creativity and courage. I was approached after the election by two respected political professionals: John Engber and Don McDonough. They quickly convinced me (and ultimately the rest of the Board) that the key to success was to place a revised plan on the Presidential ballot in 1996. The reason? Younger voters would be a much larger proportion of the electorate. Younger voters believe they will be around for a while and therefore are much more likely to vote for a transit plan that may take years to complete (the defeated RTA plan took twenty years to build out).

The problem with November of 1996 was the twenty-month wait. How could an agency with no assets and no revenue survive? And what would it do in the interim?

rta02It began with a listening tour, asking voters why they had rejected the plan. Was it opposition to the entire concept or to certain aspects of the specific plan they rejected? The Board laid off most of the staff, keeping just 22 folks to reduce expenses to a bare minimum. Operating funds were borrowed from King County. The original Executive Director, Tom Matoff, resigned to give the Board a clean slate moving forward (Tom was a light rail guy with little interest in express bus or HOV access). Planning director Bob White (one of the original Metro staff) replaced Matoff.

Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel took over as the Board Chair despite the terrible showing the proposition had in his county. Work soon focused on some basic concepts – a smaller initial phase (somewhat ironic given that this was the big reason for Everett’s opposition) with a shorter timeframe and more investments in express bus service and HOV access projects. This was an attempt to respond to concerns raised in our listening tour. Among the issues we heard were accountability for such a huge program from an agency with no track record and that there was nothing in the plan for many parts of the RTA district for many years (if ever).

In the end the phase one plan the Board put on the ballot, now called Sound Move, was reduced from $6.7 billion to $3.9 billion (1996 dollars) and Light Rail scaled back to a line from the UW to Sea-Tac (with a door open for Northgate if additional funds were secured). Added were park and ride lots, access ramps to HOV lanes and a concept called “sub-area equity”, the concept that funds should return to the county or sub-region in rough proportion to what they had paid. The time frame for completing phase one was pegged at 10 years. The election was set for November 5, 1996.

The campaign again was hard fought, but this time the proponents were less defensive. We focused more on grass roots support and less from “opinion leaders”. It worked, voters in all three counties approved the plan, 58.8% in King County, 54.4% in Snohomish and even Pierce voters gave a 50.1% nod to the yes side.

At last it looked like smooth sailing for a Metro Seattle mass transit system!

45 Replies to “Guest Post Series: In 1996, A Second Chance for Light Rail”

  1. The Mayor leaves out the fact that they changed the boundaries of the RTA district between the first and second vote, gerrymandering it to exclude precincts that had large “No” votes the first time. It was a neatly done bit of political trickery.

    1. You’re right, they tricked those people into not voting for it, but having to pay for it!

      Oh, wait.

      1. Ah they do pay for it, it’s in the sales tax, and the lost service via Metro as ST sucks all the available transportation tax money out of the system.

        But train advocates never seem to see the other side of the coin.

      2. “the” sales tax? The sales tax outside the district (where people didn’t vote for it) doesn’t include taxes for Sound Transit. Only the sales tax in the district. They don’t have to come into the district when shopping, any more than a Portland resident has to shop in Vancouver.

      3. If you actually look at the major shopping centers and then look at the demographic of where the shoppers come from, you’ll note that not everyone at the store within the ST taxing district lives in the ST taxing district.

        “don’t have to come.”… just try living in the exburbs and only buying everything you need there. It would be extremely difficult. Besides as you well know many of those folks commute to the surrounding cities to work and eat where they pay the tax.

      4. Ah they do pay for it, it’s in the sales tax, and the lost service via Metro as ST sucks all the available transportation tax money out of the system.

        What ever are you talking about? Both metro and ST are at the statutory maximum 0.9% sales tax authorized by the legislature. They aren’t competing with each other for tax revenue.

        In addition Metro has access to ferry district money which ST does not.

    2. How is that a trick? Those precincts clearly didn’t want to be a part of the system, so they weren’t made to be. It’s a win-win situation.

    3. I fail to see the “trickery”. Suppose everyone outside of Seattle proper hated rail with a passion, would that mean Seattle shouldn’t be allowed to have it?

      I’m sure a state-wide vote would fail, does that mean the ST district shouldn
      t get it?

    4. And there were people outside both the original and “gerrymandered” CPSRTA district who were wanting to vote Yes on both votes and were disappointed when they got to their voting location and the referendum was not on their ballot.

      But then you can still drive for one hour in almost any direction from downtown Seattle and find yourself on the set of “Deliverance”.

      1. Obviously you’ve never been to Georgia…

        I’m sure those xburbanites think of Seattle as full of wacko liberal nut cases where drugs are sold on every street corner (Belltown), there are nightly shootings (Pioneer Sq), and the crime rate is high…

        Each to his own wrong-headed delusion.

      2. Those must be the same people who comment on Times and P-I articles and think the Rainier Valley has drive-by shootings every day and they’ll be killed if they even get out of their car.

    5. Rail opponents everywhere always hope for transit districts which include rural & outlying areas. That’s where “their” voters reside. Right next to various freeway offramps, paid for by city-dwellers.

    6. No the point is that the plan didn’t really change all that much. That is to say, rather than listen to the voters, they just removed the No votes, and to make it look different, cut the time frame to build less rail. Which under the old plan would have been built first anyway.

      It still was political chicanery.

      1. Ah, so how long is it before it’s not? Because ST2 looks an awful lot like Forward Thrust. Is that political chicanery?

        How about 2007 versus 2008? We got rid of those pesky roads rather than listen to the voters who said they didn’t want transit. Is that political chicanery?

        Where would you have put the ST boundaries?

      2. I’m still failing to see the chicanery. The vote was on whether to be taxed for the new system. Some areas voted strongly against being taxed, so their wishes were granted and they were not included in the next vote. Should RTA have kept them in the district, either forcing them against their will to be taxed when the vote went through, or letting them continue to drag the proposal down for those areas that did want to be taxed for rail?

        Either demonstrate how this is chicanery, or stop making accusations.

      3. That’s not true that they didn’t change the bill that much. The 1995 bill was almost entirely light rail. The 1996 bill had only Central Link + ULink and a ton of bus service.

  2. I’m wondering if I can find the original RTA proposal that was defeated in 1995?

    As an aside I suspect the original proposal might very well have passed had it been on the November ballots in ’94, ’95, or ’96. Oddball special elections tend to attract mostly older voters and the anti-tax cranks. This isn’t exactly the best set of voters to put a transit plan in front of. High-turnout elections are best for getting transit plans passed. Putting ST2 on the November 2008 ballot provided the best chance of getting it passed.

    1. Indeed, and I suspect we should wait for 2012 and 2016 for our next big funding packages. Even years, November elections, work well.

      1. 2012 should be a good year to go back to the voters for more money. The main LINK line will have been running for 3 years so we can all see how well it’s doing. The University connection won’t be done, but the project can be graded by then, (late, on time, under/over budget)

        And by 2012 the worst of the recession should be over, housing will have bottomed out, the credit card defaults will have been written off etc. Things should be looking up.

        By 2016, the University connection will be done, the Eastside LINK construction will either be in-progress or abandoned/modified to use/not use the I-90 bridge. Again probably a good time to go back for more money for the West Seattle/Burein White Center route.

        By 2016, enough time may have passed to do something about the University/Ballard connection…probably an elevated system, not necessarily LR though.

      2. U-Link will not likely be done by November of 2016. The schedules I’ve seen put it at the end of the year.

      3. By 2016, enough time may have passed to do something about the University/Ballard connection…probably an elevated system, not necessarily LR though.

        Monorail’s not coming back, dude.

      4. I should get out more often, but monorail’s still not coming back, and certainly not for a Ballard to U-District connection. Look, it failed, it’s not going to happen, get over it. I would have nothing against building a monorail if it could practically/financially work, except that it makes a whole lot more sense to integrate our transportation investments with the system we have, i.e. light rail. What I don’t understand is the fixation some people have for monorail, so much so that nothing else is acceptable, no matter how impractical building a monorail proves to be. Now if some wealthy oil barrons want to build us a monorail line, then go for it.

      5. By 2016, enough time may have passed to do something about the University/Ballard connection…probably an elevated system, not necessarily LR though.

        Assuming this follows 45th/Market much of it will need to be underground. I doubt there will be much support for an elevated alignment through the business districts in Ballard, Wallingford, or the U-District. The ROW is quite narrow, especially through Wallingford which eliminates surface as an option unless Link operates in mixed traffic. At that point you might as well go with a streetcar instead.

        Personally I think doing downtown/West Seattle/White Center/Burien and Downtown/Seattle Center/Interbay/Ballard is much more important than the E/W connector between the U-District and Ballard.

      6. I agree with this. I’d certainly like to see a Ballard to UW line eventually, but it’s way down the list of priorities. It certainly would be further down than connecting West Seattle to Downtown. If a Ballard line to Downtown gets built with a dedicated ROW/grade seperation and a connection at Westlake, then the trip from Ballard to UW would still be much quicker than a peak-hour bus straight between Ballard and UW. So, yeah, a Ballard-UW line could wait for awhile.

        Anyway, we are getting way ahead of ourselves. Let’s get a Ballard to Downtown line in ST3 or a special funding vote in Seattle.

      7. An east-west line would probably have twice the ridership of a north-south line. People would be able to go places on all four angles, not just two directions.

  3. The Mass Transit Now campaign put out a mailer that was similar to the second photo with the speech bubbles. The message is the same too, only it says 40 years instead of 30 years.

  4. As a newcomer that was drawn to Seattle by many hard-fought progressive victories (especially the ones that support my carfree life here) and a student of history, I really appreciate this series of retrospectives. Thanks!

    Here’s hoping postal balloting changes the dynamic of “off-peak” elections…

    1. It won’t, it hasn’t elsewhere. The issue is incentives – making voting less difficult helps, but doesn’t do anything for the lack of money spent in off-peak years. People often aren’t even aware there’s an election to miss.

  5. I’m in Portland for a few days on business; is there a visitor center at Ironworks? And is HQ at Clackamas, or in Vancouver?

    Amazing that I’ve lived in Washington for most of the time since 1992 (Tuesday, June 16th, if I remember correctly), but this is the first time I’ve ever been to Portland…before I always just drove through. Cyclists everywhere, MAX, the streetcar…hopefully this will be Seattle in another decade or two.

  6. I remember well all those highs and lows of the mid 90’s, trying to come up with a mass transit plan that would pass muster with the voters, yet didn’t make sausage out of good transit planning.
    Too small a staff, too big a reliance on consultants and old information, too many political pressures, and too big an area to serve with too little resourses resulted in the plan that passed. Was it the right choice?
    Some still argue that it was knowingly overstated and under funded just to get a YES vote. Then, some heads would roll, and the new team manager would start with a fresh slate; just like Tom left, Bob became the new fall guy. But, the project moves on! I don’t think it was intended that way, but when you have your heart and soul in a project, it’s easy to overlook the big flaws, and just continue to cheerlead.
    Others argue the more purist logic, that circumstances beyond anyone’s control forced the initial 10 year plan to get cut and be extended by several years. Eventually, most of Sound Move will be completed, as time and funding march on.
    Was it a good choice to run under Beacon Hill, and down MLK to the airport, rather than build a separate streetcar line from Henderson to SODO, and let the regional spine go down the Duwamish? Ridership in future years will be the ultimate judge.
    Was going to Capitol Hill a good choice over an elevated line through S.Lk.Union, then over the ship canal to Campus Pkwy, with another streetcar line looping through Broadway/1st Hill. I guess we’ll never know, but the ridership and cost will determine the net effect of loosing Convention Station and 1st Hill station in exchange for the new Broadway Station, along with stopping in the parking lot of Husky Stadium. The jury is still out on that one.
    Bottom Line is this. Mr. Nickels, and the RTA, JRPC, Sound Transit crew are nearing completion of the first mass transit line in Seattle since the Interurban.
    Congratulations to all for staying the course, and I genuinely hope it’s a huge success, especially when combined with ST2.

    1. Wait, “completion of the first mass transit line in Seattle “… ah so buses aren’t mass transit? And since Sounder runs outside of Seattle, it’s excluded?

      What a lot of hyperbole. It’s a frigging rail line, not a rocket ship to the moon.

      1. …buses really aren’t mass transit, no. Sounder only runs at peak times, and runs for 15 minutes before its first stop.

        You realize that in its first year of operation, Link will carry twice the number of the highest ridership bus in Seattle? With U Link, that will double again. This is not the same kind of transit.

      2. More to the point, based on the ST ridership estimates Central Link will be one of the most successful new Light Rail systems for first year operation. Furthermore the ridership will be much higher than many older systems with more route miles.

        With the addition of U Link the ridership will be among the highest of any light rail system in the country. Link is likely to have the 7th highest ridership of any light rail system in the US after the first year of U Link operation.

        Note that this is based on the ST ridership estimates which many feel are overly conservative.

      3. Yeah, it could end up being significantly higher. We’ll see.

        I think that once ST2’s 2023 work comes online, we’re going to be in the top five, maybe even two or three, in terms of light rail.

      4. With the 2023 build out we’re likely to beat everyone for ridership except Boston, SF, and LA.

  7. The true test of leadership is how an elected official produces results over avlong period of time. Mr. Nickels has obviously met that standard given his multi-decade dedication to the light rail project.

    When I look at the various flash-in-the-pan candidates running against him this year, I simply can’t find one which measures up.

    Jan Drago has experience, and has supported streetcars in the past. But I lost some respect for her when she started drinking the monorail Kool Aid.

    1. Drago is just another tool of the Downtown business association. She’s Nickles only more so.

      Nickles big failure was the snow removal job and that’s pretty minor.

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