2008 Sound Transit 2
2008 Sound Transit 2

As discussions about a new statewide transportation package continue in Olympia, transit advocates need to make one point clear to lawmakers: transit supporters are the key swing voters when it comes to defending a statewide transportation package. Just because a package passes in Olympia doesn’t mean it would survive a public vote.

While transit supporters are the most likely to support new taxes for transportation investments, they are also the most likely to swing against a highway-heavy package. History has shown that when transit supporters are not happy with a transportation package, an odd coalition of environmentalists and fiscal conservatives (i.e. Tim Eyman) emerges to soundly reject it. This is as true now as it has ever been.

History bears this out. In 2002 Referendum 51 drew criticism from parts of the environmental community, failing in an incredibly lopsided (38%-62%) statewide vote. Three years later, Tim Eyman’s Initiative 912 — which would have repealed the  2005 Transportation Partnership Program which on a whole made necessarily investments in safety, maintenance and replacement  — was rejected by voters. While the initiative had much more support statewide than R-51, King County was the decisive factor in its defeat, rejecting it by over 161,000 votes.

The 2007 Roads and Transit package and 2008 Sound Transit 2 measures also clearly illustrate this trend. Full of controversial projects (such as the Cross Base Highway) and with strong institutional and financial backing, Roads and Transit was nevertheless rejected by 56% of the voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. In contrast, Sound Transit 2 passed just a year later with 57% approval despite a shoestring campaign budget and the looming economic crisis (see map above).

As currently proposed, the House transportation package looks to repeat the history of R-51 and Road and Transit, with transit supporters opposed to the package despite the dire funding needs of transit agencies. What transit supports want is important, but what they don’t want is equally important, and their ‘yes’ vote cannot be assured simply by including their needs in an otherwise unacceptable package.

Key fixes to the current proposal to make it palatable to transit supporters include:

  • Ensuring transit agencies have a sustainable funding sources in addition to revenue sources for future growth, especially for Sound Transit;
  • Increased state funding for safety projects, especially Complete Streets and Safe Routes to School;
  • Robust local funds for counties and cities to maintain their deteriorating roads;
  • Fully funding existing projects like SR-520 and SR-99 over new projects and;
  • A true emphasis on the Moving Washington goals, particularly safety and maintenance.

25 Replies to “Transit Supporters are the Key Swing Vote”

  1. Thanks for writing this. We need to make our law makers aware that we do not support new highways, and we expect Olympia to fully fund 520 and 99 first.

  2. A good summary.
    I would modify the first item to emphasize all transit agencies in Washington State not just Sound Transit. They are all hurting big time aren’t they?

    1. I think some of the reason for the emphasis might be ST’s greater focus on capital costs (rail) relative to other transit agencies, and the state tends to play a much bigger role in capital than operations. ST also happens to overlay a region that includes the three largest transit agencies in the state (I’m assuming), so that probably plays a role as well.

  3. I was thinking about this a few days ago. If the bill passes to a public vote, it might be the first time I end up voting against a transportation funding measure.

    1. I’m hearing it is unlikely to go to a vote as a referendum so if it goes to a vote it will most likely be as an initiative.

      1. Who would register the initiative and gather signatures for it? Transit fans won’t. Would the highway lobby really do it? Or some citizen who really, really, REALLY wants new highways? It would be interesting to see their marketing campaign.

  4. Ah, East Pierce was transit hostile here as well. But this thing was passed because Seattle got to vote.

    Go Seattle!

  5. I dont think that transit voters alone got ST2 to pass, it helped tremendously that it was an election year with more voter turnout.

    1. Certainly not but a 10% swing is huge and I highly doubt that was just cause of the presidential ellection.

  6. I co-sign this.

    I would add that I would prefer statewide transit taxes be kicked back to the locals, rather than the locals have to go through the circus of what King County did w/ their temporary Metro rescue package. This way, there is a vote, and then directly resulting revenue.

  7. Might be good to offer the voters an emphasis on measures to make transit faster and more reliable: especially reserved lanes and signal pre-empt for both railcars and buses.

    The lack of these things left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths regarding certain large red and yellow buses. It will also be good for the voters to see a chance to make their ride faster while necessary rail is being built.

    Mark Dublin

  8. ‘Three years later, Tim Eyman’s Initiative 912 — which would have repealed the 2005 Transportation Partnership Program which on a whole made necessarily investments in safety, maintenance and replacement – was rejected by voters. While the initiative had much more support statewide than R-51, King County was the decisive factor in its defeat, rejecting it by over 161,000 votes’

    Two issues with this example – I-912 was not an Eyman initiative (sponsor was Brett Bader, I believe?) and a no vote actually was a vote to retain the 9.5 cent fuel tax increase needed to build all the highway capacity improvements the fuel tax increase funded (meaning King County was pro-highway, I guess).

    Lastly, non-highway investments from the 2005 transportation partnership act revenue package totaled around $850M over 16 years statewide vs. something like +$6B for roads.

    1. Agreed.

      The situation around 2005 was mainly to punish Gregoire for the failings of Dean Logan & King County Elections to run a fair election (do not get me started on that one!). It was pushed by KVI’s Kirby Wilbur (now WSRP Chair) & John Carlson as a tax revolt, however rising gas prices made it seem like paying another 9.5 cents for gas for transportation wasn’t much pain.

    2. It was filed by Jane M. Milhans. I’ve revised the post.

      On your second point I believe that is what I wrote. “Which would have repealed… was rejected.” I agree it’s confusing but that always happens with you have initiative and referendums in the same discussion and for the life of me I can’t figure out a more clear way to put it.

      As to your last point remember in 2005 we were in a different place. Just about every transit agency (or every?) had additional authority so they didn’t need money or new authority as part of a statewide package. ST2 had not passed and it was too early to even talk about it. The projects while, certainly not all perfect, primarily addressed choke points, interchanges and safety projects like SR-520, SR-99, and I-90 snoqualmie pass upgrades, or the I-405/SR-520 braided ramps. I see that as a “strategic capacity improvement” per Moving Washington. Transit supporters will support highway projects, just not flat out capacity improvements.

      1. …along with a somewhat confusing mix of projects. It wasn’t obviously clear (without digging deep into the package) what Prop 1 ‘bought’ – that didn’t help.

  9. As a lifelong political junkie with a degree in Political Science and years of experience working in politics and government, I have to wince a bit at analyses like this. Urbanists know cities, and it’s fun to analyze GPS maps of how different places vote on different ballot measures, but there’s a necessary political science element that’s missing. One obvious example is the timing of different elections. Turnout varies substantially between presidential, midterm, and odd-numbered years. The same is true of general vs. primary and special elections. And who votes sometimes but not others is not random. All else being equal, a tax measure to fund transit will always do better in presidential years like 1996 and 2008 than odd years like 1995 and 2007. When you compare 2007’s Roads and Transit with 2008’s Mass Transit Now, it’s irresponsible not to note the large spike in oil and gas prices between the two votes, and the September 2008 financial collapse. Take the same Roads and Transit package, move it to a presidential year when gas is $4 instead of $2, and I guarantee it will get many more votes.

    There are more important points that ought to be included here, but my bigger gripe is that when urbanists engage in political science analysis, they ought to consult people who know something about political science, not just transit and cities.

Comments are closed.