Anyone who attended last Tuesday’s public hearing witnessed hundreds rallying to save Metro from imminent, draconian cuts. It reminded me of a similar hearing two years ago, when a few swing votes on the King County Council were persuaded to approve the $20 Congestion Relief Charge, staving off the cuts that we again have to face. But despite a much more difficult path this time around, many of the efforts to save Metro again amount to mere theater, acts that could easily be falling on deaf ears.
Unlike the successful 2011 effort, King County’s Transportation, Economy, and Environment Committee and County Council are nothing more than the middlemen this time around. Neither body will be able to do squat. Like many other local jurisdictions in the Puget Sound area, they’ve openly lobbied for local transit funding options to no avail during the regular State legislative session.
But regardless of what’s happening in Olympia, a show of enormous local support from multiple sides might provide some semblance of comfort to the thousands who rely on Metro. It has certainly been sold that way– large pro-transit signs were prevalent at the hearing, as if county lawmakers were the ones who had the power to save Metro.
The crushing reality is that thousands have been led to believe exactly that: just like last time, a powerful public turnout might be able to directly sway the decision-makers. Many came out in earnest last Tuesday, a number of whom represent the transit-dependent and disadvantaged. But few actually know that all that King County can do is appeal to the State, and that the decision rests in much larger hands. In all likelihood, many of the state legislators who will end up casting the votes are probably ignoring it all, pledging an ear only to their own constituents.
I think the travesty of this crisis isn’t that our funding is so volatile or even that thousands might lose transit service. It’s that through the worst kind of politics, this State has effectively abdicated its responsibility to our largest and most important city and county. Is it really a surprise to anyone that the Legislature waited until the special session to seriously consider transportation legislation, while at the same time ignoring the most rational bills during the regular session?
Equally shameful has been the forced choice for transit advocates between two enormous evils: gutting one of the nation’s busiest transit systems, or expanding our highways relentlessly. It’s a classic Morton’s fork. To lump together the needs of transit users and those that would benefit generously from a massive road expansion is an utter disgrace and emblematic of the gravest pitfalls of our political system. And worst of all, it seems to be our last resort.
I think Martin put it correctly when he predicted that transit advocates will inevitably be split on this issue. But if we’re cognizant of the implications of whatever side we take, our division may actually become our greatest strength. Should the transportation package fail and Metro service be gutted, it gives pro-transit social service and anti-sprawl advocates one unifying cause moving forward: to give transit the spotlight it deserves in Olympia.