After a series of comments that challenged the STB consensus on various Sound Transit-related issues, I asked Sen. Murray to explain his positions in more detail.
In the email exchange reproduced below, Sen. Murray says he doesn’t support governance reform anymore, expresses his support for ST3, and explains why he thinks Seattle would do better without subarea equity:
1) Can you explain what exactly your vision for transit agency consolidation is? What agencies would merge? Are governing board members appointed, elected in districts, or elected at large? By what criteria would it allocate resources? Would it have responsibility for roads or zoning?
Unlike those who believe that transit planning is a zero sum game, where a benefit in one jurisdiction necessarily means a loss to others in the region, I believe that Seattle will benefit from better transit service via a cooperative relationship with our growing, increasingly dense inner-ring suburbs. Every day tens of thousands of people enter Seattle from the suburbs, and vice versa, travelling from homes to jobs and other destinations. Our goal must be to maximize the number of these trips that are made via transit rather than single-occupancy vehicle, while also supporting transit usage in Seattle between neighborhoods.
So, I have long believed that smart regional planning and cooperation, based on forward-looking transit and land use policy principles, is something worth encouraging. Until a few years ago I thought the best way to achieve that cooperation was through creating one consolidated transit agency that was dedicated to maximizing the efficient allocation of our transit dollars to move the most people in the Seattle metropolitan area. The other factor for me that heightened my interest in consolidation was that in the past there was poor coordination between transit agencies, particularly between Sound Transit and Metro, something that consolidation would obviously have been designed to address. Many successful cities around the country have vibrant bus and rail systems that support and complement each other to create near seamless experiences for the riders. Seattle has a robust bus system and a growing rail system that also must be coordinated to the maximum benefit of the user. Fortunately this issue is being addressed and the agencies now work together and coordinate much better than they did even a few years ago.
However, after watching the debates around governance reform evolve – what started as an idea championed by pro-transit progressives morphed into a stalking horse for some anti-transit elements – and after feeling some of the backlash (including from places like STB), I realized a few years ago that my approach was wrong. It is not that I have changed my opinion about the importance of regional cooperation, or my belief that a stronger alliance between Seattle and our inner-ring suburbs is the right way to build up our transit infrastructure most effectively; I have not. But I realized that these divisive and polarizing governance reform debates were not the way to get this done. I realized, rather, that regional cooperation must be an organic, incremental and evolutionary process, as Seattle and suburbs like Bellevue become more like one another in terms of urban culture and land use principles.
My goal today is to make our transportation system work better – all aspects of it – including public transit in Seattle. Agency consolidation may no longer be necessary, but the coordination and integration of our transit agencies remains important. My approach now is to focus our attention on continuing to improve coordination between the agencies – and building collaborative regional ties – to put together the next round of transit investment and to earn the public’s support for ST3.
2) Would you support Sound Transit 3 if it retained the current governance structure?
Yes, absolutely. We need to move forward on expanding light rail. My goal is to see ST3 on the ballot and approved by voters in 2016 with significant light rail investment for Seattle and the region. Other mayoral candidates will say the same thing, but I am the only one with a proven track record of success. I fought the political battles and overcame huge obstacles to build an effective bi-partisan coalition to pass Marriage Equality in the state legislature. I believe we can – indeed, we must – build a similarly broad coalition in support of our next major leap forward on transit. We need a Mayor with this record of success to get ST3 done, not a mayor who has failed to deliver on promises.
3) What about the politics of the Seattle region makes you believe that it would accept a greater of portion of resources going to Seattle projects?
My goal is to create a public transit system that works for the needs of Seattle, our suburban partners and the region as a whole. We are not in a situation where regional players are unwilling to look beyond their immediate, parochial self-interest – with the right leadership we can come up with better solutions that benefit Seattle and the entire region. If the former were the case, suburban elected officials would never have agreed to change the misguided 40/40/20 policy that governed Metro service decisions. But because of the leadership exhibited by King County Executive Constantine, they did agree to change that policy, and our bus transit system is better as a result.
The basic question is not whether the region would accept a greater portion of resources going to Seattle. The question is whether the region is willing to prioritize investment in transit dollars to build projects quicker, where they are most needed and will move the most people with the most benefit to the overall transportation system. A significant problem with the current scheme for financing Sound Transit projects is that the projects are not built with the support or the financial capacity of the full district, but instead are limited to the financial support of the sub-area. This both limits the scope of projects in each sub-area as well as how quickly the projects can be built. By prioritizing projects based on clearly articulated policy principles focused on demand and smart land-use decisions instead of political geography we enable the Sound Transit Board to create a better ST3 package for Seattle and the region. The Board should begin this discussion to design a new policy approach in preparation for ST3.
4) You said earlier this year that Seattle “can’t afford” light rail by itself. If the legislature authorizes ST3 but retains subarea equity, is it your opinion that it is unaffordable for Seattle?
The benefits of light rail for Seattle and the region are clear. Light rail will turn a twenty to thirty minute bus ride between UW and Downtown Seattle into a six-minute trip all day everyday regardless of traffic. We need more of this fast, reliable grade-separated transit service, and we need it now to better connect Seattle neighborhoods. But at the same time Seattle does not exist in a bubble, and to pretend it does – to pretend Seattle can address all of its needs alone – is a fool’s errand. Thousands of Seattleites commute to jobs outside of our city each day to Redmond, Everett and Bellevue. Our transit system must be designed with the needs of Seattle and the region in mind. This is why I support creating an ST3 package for the ballot in 2016 that prioritizes investment of our precious transit dollars to move the most people in the most efficient way connecting Seattle neighborhoods to each other and the region with fast, reliable, grade-separated light rail. Seattle can’t afford to go it alone because to do so would jeopardize the creation of the regional system Seattleites depend on. The Sound Transit Board should have the ability to create an ST3 package that provides the most benefit to transportation in our region, which will inevitably benefit Seattle. We should be building a transit system from the inside out that maximizes ridership and benefits smart land-use decisions. We don’t want to create an inefficient transit system based on a balkanized political geography.
5) Lastly, all the Sound Transit reforms we have discussed are matters for the legislature. In your time in the legislature, you never achieved any of these reforms. What makes you think that a legislature without Ed Murray in it will make any of these changes?
My record on transportation in the legislature speaks for itself. In 2003 I was appointed Chair of the House Transportation Committee at a dark period for the state’s transportation system. Republicans were in control of the state Senate, and Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695 had effectively repealed state funding assistance for public transportation programs and local transit agencies. Over the next three sessions, I worked to win over conservative Democrats and Republicans to rebuild state support for transit, restoring tens of millions of dollars into transit and transportation alternatives. While conventional wisdom in Olympia was to narrowly focus transportation spending on freeway expansion to serve the suburbs, I successfully fought to make significant investments in a comprehensive transportation package totaling close to one billion dollars in new multi-modal funding. This included close to $60 million for safe routes to schools and more than $300 million for transit through the Regional Mobility Grant Program. I also funded a new stand-alone WSDOT Public Transit Office with a direct report to the Secretary of Transportation to help elevate the importance of transit in our state.
Frankly, the biggest impediment to accomplishing more has been the fact that Seattle elected officials have been divided and prone to bickering amongst themselves, rather than presenting a united front, when they come to Olympia. And we have had leadership in City Hall, particularly the current mayor, who has alienated key leaders in Olympia, making it very difficult to push forward a reform agenda.
I know that we will never be able to wipe out all the anti-Seattle sentiment in Olympia, but with a new mayor we can improve the climate so we can start making progress again on transit. As Mayor I will build on my Olympia successes and leverage the strong relationships developed over the years to secure the tools we need to make ST3 a success in 2016 and expand light rail in Seattle. No other candidate for mayor has relationships, and the record of success, to stand by that promise.