Last Tuesday's hearing at Union Station, photo courtesy Washington Bus.
Last Tuesday’s hearing at Union Station, photo courtesy Washington Bus.

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.

33 Replies to “The Theater of Last Tuesday’s Public Hearing”

  1. When Tim Eyman gutted a public transit funding source over 10 years ago (MVET), the focus clearly shifted to Olympia to do something. Well, we all know how that worked out, so I’m not very confident that state politics is going to yield to local needs this time around either.
    That said, total local funding has recovered to pre-Eyman levels, but transit is much more expensive to provide, relative to normal inflation, for a variety of reasons.
    Metro’s ‘The Sky is Falling’ message is starting to wear thin, in spite of their main talking point of ‘We’ve saved 3/4 Bil in the last 3 years’, so now we’re only short $75 M/yr. I don’t know if this will play in Pcipsy, much less in Kinky County.

    1. Mic,

      You don’t really think Poughkeepsie is spelled “Pcipsy” do you? This was some sort of meta-pun on the way it’s pronounced, right? (It seems likely since you also called King County “Kinky” in the same sengence — I hope in jest about its politics, not its diversity).

      1. ps, from UNIX, “pcipsy – PCI bus to Safari bus nexus driver”, so after the reorg, Metro will become PCI and only have nexus drivers to Safari-land.
        … and I’m still trying to decode ‘sengence’, and don’t dismiss it as a typo.

      2. Alas, you have excellent eyes. It was a rather a sententious spelling, wasn’t it? To what sentence do you condemn me, your Honor?

        And that business about the data buses. Very well done.

      3. Alas kind sir, your retort of ‘Sengence’ was well played too.
        This is a post about the ‘Theater of Politics’ and as we all know, Sengence is a line of cosmetics. No actor dare take the stage without the proper face on.

  2. 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.

    In politics, it has another name: logrolling.

    The Republicans in the state Senate know that King County (and, let’s be honest, mostly Seattle) will never vote on its own to expand road projects. By giving us the thin veneer of “hey, you got what you want,” they can pass a highway bill. Never mind that requiring that transit expenditures be put to a vote, yet the much larger highway package can’t possibly be done the same way, is insulting. But, hey, cars are easy to explain to people outside of an urban area and this way a small segment of the people’s representatives can go home and declare that they “beat Seattle” in the “war on cars.”

  3. Ed Murray was no friend of transit in Olympia, despite his jargon here about why he should be Seattle’s next mayor. Never forget.

  4. How on gods green earth is it so difficult to get funding for transit. This state legalized marijuana and gay marriage, but we can’t even fund our transit system. Just what the hell? I’m for those two things, but I don’t understand how we got those passed and can’t reliably fund the busses!

    1. The state didn’t legalize pot and gay marriage, the voters did that via citizen initiative. Maybe someone who knows how to do that should put transit funding on the ballot, I know I would vote for it.

      1. Gay marriage went through the state legislature first, and passed, then they decided to let us vote on it to be sure(referendum) IIRC.
        Pot was purely initiative, yes. But still, in a state full of support for things like that, why doesn’t it seem to support people getting around easier?

      2. Oh, and Alex, gay marriage doesn’t cost anyone anything, and marijuana legalization has at least some possibility of raising tax revenues.

        Homer and Clementine out in Royal City come to the Big City (Seattle) once a year for a weekend of shopping and hair letting down and don’t want to pay more sales tax for the privilege. When Homer talks to his state Representative, he reminds him of that.

      3. I would simply point out that gay marriage and marijuana didn’t cost the taxpayer anything. Getting folks to vote for transportation taxes statewide is another ball game. Much better for the Leg to just do its job and pass funding itself.

      4. When Homer and Clementine in Royal City go to the big city, they’re talking about Spokane. You’d be shocked at how many have probably never crossed over the mountains.

    2. The reason that the legislature won’t give King County a free hand on transit taxes has been explained here on STB several times: if the county could self-fund all it’s transit needs it would overwhelmingly vote against statewide road improvements. At least, that’s what the rest of the state fears.

      They’d know they’d be effed if that came about.

      1. That is the most clearly its been put and It hadn’t clicked in that way in my mind before. That makes all the more sense now. That’s very unfortunate, and the whole state will suffer from the decision to strangle Seattle.

      2. The real reason the State imposes limits on how local jurisdictions may tax is because the taxes (property, sales, MVET) are subject to tax at many different levels. It’s in part a sense of fairness that a person or business shouldn’t have to pay wildly disparate taxation levels from one part of the State to another. Renton for example could lean on Boeing as a cash cow until eventually they move out of the State which hurts the economy for everyone and is counter productive to the State trying to be competive. The other thing is the State wants to make sure it can get it’s share of the pie. In the case of property tax going to fund schools for example rich areas like M.I., Bellevue, and yes Seattle could vote for higher taxes and provide a wonderful system for their kids at which point legislators from those districts would have no incentive at all to adequately fun education at the State level (or, underfund it even more as the case may be).

      3. If that’s the case, maybe gutting the transit system really is worth it if it sends the message to Olympia that we’ll vote overwhelmingly against statewide road improvements (especially if that really means “new roads”) no matter what.

      4. If that’s the case, maybe gutting the transit system really is worth it if it sends the message to Olympia

        More cheese please. What “message to Olympia” are you sending? I sense this transit prayed upon attitude when lots of special interests have the same issue.

  5. It’s still utterly shameful that it would take the gutting of the transit system to “give transit the spotlight it deserves in Olympia”, assuming even that would do so. I’m skeptical of proportional representation, but the politics of this state and region can make it look mighty compelling.

    Why do you think all these efforts have been directed at county lawmakers with zero effort to direct them to the state?

  6. King county should become it’s own state.
    It’s bigger than Rhode Island, and I’m sure sick of dragging the rest of Washington around.
    We could have a battle royal between Bellevue and Seattle for capitol site, and we’d have our own senator and reps in D.C.
    Think of the possibilities.

    1. You’d have to find a new red state somewhere, no way Congress would approve two new blue-state senators without some sort of subarea equity for the red states.

      1. Right now Washington is a single state that reliably produces two senators and 12 electoral votes for the Democrats. Splitting off King County into a separate state, the 4-5 electoral votes in the new state would be practically guaranteed for the Democrats, but the new Washington would be very competitive between the two parties.

        Last year Barack Obama won Washington by 15 percentage points. Remove King County from the equation and Obama would have only won by 3 points (1 point closer than the national popular vote).

        Maria Cantwell won re-election last year by 20 points. Subtract King County’s votes and it dips down to a 10-point margin. A better Republican candidate could have had a very good chance of beating Cantwell outside of King County.

        In 2010, eliminating King County from Washington would have turned a 5-point victory for Patty Murray into a 6-point victory for Dino Rossi.

        In 2008, eliminating King County from Washington would have reduced Obama’s 17-point victory to a 6-point one (again, 1 point closer than the national popular vote).

        If not for King County, Bush would have beaten Kerry in Washington, and the last three gubernatorial elections would have been won by Republicans.

        All in all, I think the split would be a net positive for Republicans on a national level.

      2. Alternately, split Washington down the Cascades. One solidly blue and solidly red state each, no splitting the Puget Sound region between separate states. Spokane, Ellensburg, Yakima, or one of the Tri-Cities can be the capital of Lincoln.

  7. I think we should run an Eymanesque initiative to “Keep Local Taxes Local.” I would guess most voters in the state don’t realize that King County pays more to the state than it gets back in return. In fact, most rural voters probably feel like they are subsidizing our big socialist county. Such an initiative would easily win conservative support with the proper (completely false) messaging. If it passes we have the benefit of getting more tax revenue and possibly more of that going to transit. If it fails it would only be because voters in all the rural counties who benefit from our large tax base were properly educated, which could maybe lead to them supporting us taxing ourselves more.

    1. It isn’t just about keeping local taxes local at the county level. A lot of state spending comes back into King County and Seattle particularly on highway projects that we’re pretty ambivalent about. We should expect that a relatively prosperous county exports tax dollars a little. But we should also expect more local control about how the money that comes back for transportation is spent.

      1. A lot of state spending comes back into King County and Seattle particularly on highway projects that we’re pretty ambivalent about.

        Yes, but not as much as we pay out.

      1. If you really believe in “keeping local taxes local”, then why stop at the county line?
        That’s what led to 40-40-20, which was repealed. Do you want to fund over 60% of the cost of operating Metro within Seattle with only 40% of the local taxes?

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