by GREG NICKELS, Mayor of Seattle and Chair of the Sound Transit Board
Following 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?
It 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!