County Exec candidate Susan Hutchinson (and to a lesser extent Ross Hunter) have made some approving comments about governance reform. Governance reform refers to a whole class of proposals that involves the merger of various transportation agencies to introduce operating efficiencies. The most well-known of these is the Rice/Stanton proposal, which would have created a transportation super-agency responsible for roads and transit in a four county area (King, Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap). The 15-member board would be a mixture of directly elected members and the Governor’s appointees. This proposal, and others like it, is a terrible idea.
For clarity, I’ll focus on the Rice/Stanton proposal, but many of these arguments apply to other reorganization ideas:
- If it ain’t broke… Sound Transit rail projects should be the main effort for the long-term sustainability of our transportation system, and at the moment it’s running its domain pretty well. I’d hate to have them take their eyes off the ball to work out organization trees instead of focusing on tunneling under Capitol Hill on schedule. Moreover, with bus operating budgets completely unsustainable and promising immediate poltical pain, the temptation to raid the rail capital budget could sink the whole project.
- Low-information elections: I’m a firm believer that we vote for too many offices in this state. Low information elections are decided by a combination of ignorant voter guesswork and shadowy, moneyed interests. The two most salient regional entities of this type are the Port of Seattle and the Seattle School Board, and it’s been some time since anyone has said anything good about how those are run.
- Invested Political Leaders: I consider myself neutral in the Monorail recriminations that are still ongoing, and don’t want to fight that battle here. However, one lesson of the whole sorry experience is that in a crisis, nothing substitutes for major political leaders invested in the success of an agency. The monorail didn’t have that and it died. Sound Transit has a federated board and it survived its infancy.
- The state both interferes more and contributes less. 2007’s RTID was correctly seen as an attempt by the State to get the region to pay up for roads that are strictly the State’s responsibility. Merging responsibility for roads into a regional entity simply formalizes this abdication of responsibility. Moreover, the Rice/Stanton structure gives the governor 40% of votes on the board. Given the execrable transit record of both Democratic and Republican governors in this state, you can be sure those 6 commissioners would be a solid vote for pouring asphalt to solve any problem.
- Dilution of pro-transit voters. This is my primary objection to various proposals to extend Sounder to one outlying city or another. Sound Transit’s majorities are not so large that it can afford to buy off another chunk of mostly rural, habitually anti-transit voters, who will complain that all their money “goes to Seattle” even when subarea equity requires that it doesn’t. Pierce Transit is at 0.6% sales tax out of an authorized 0.9%, which is all you need to know about their electorate (which is not to diminish the passion felt by many transit activists down there).
The more I reflect on it, the more I realize what a lucky accident the design of the RTA was. Subarea Equity was an attempt to appease the parochial instincts of most voters, and criticized for preventing adequate rail investment in the Seattle core; what it’s actually going to do is make sure that ST3 funds aren’t swallowed up entirely by the effort to get to Tacoma and Everett. Another fortuitous aspect is that there’s no initiative process at the RTA level, so the agency isn’t as vulnerable to any quack who wants to launch a recall campaign whenever there’s a setback.
Let’s not mess with Sound Transit. They have work to do.