On Dec. 3 the King County Council was discussing its 2015 legislative agenda when District 1 representative Rod Dembowski brought up a harrowing prospect (a scrollable video is here) . Citing the “historic and continuing lack of representation on the Sound Transit Board of Directors” for the North King cities he represents, Mr. Dembowski stated “I know that there will be probably action with respect to Governance Reform in the legislature ties to proposals for Sound Transit 3.” He wanted to know the County’s official position on this issue.

County Director of Govt. Relations Rachel Smith, speaking on behalf of the Executive, answered that “The Executive supports the current construct of the Sound Transit Board and would not be in favor of any governance changes.”

Mr. Dembowski didn’t take that as an answer, continuing to implore the Council to consider its response.

In a later email to me, Dembowski clarified he “did not ‘support governance reform’ at Sound Transit,” saying he was merely “aimed at being ready to respond when those issues arise in Olympia,” and ” that elected leaders in the north will look at ‘governance reform’ if they continue to be left out.” He declined an opportunity to name specific city officials or legislators.

Rail advocates have usually looked at governance reform, rightly, as a way to fundamentally redirect a Sound Transit Board that most advocates believe is doing basically the right thing. The precise proposals vary — from incorporating roads into the mission, to a directly elected board — but at STB we’ve argued against it here, here, here, here, here, and perhaps most notably here. If finding a spot for the Mayor of Shoreline, for example, heads this off, that would be worthwhile.

As PubliCola points out, with four of Dembowski’s Council colleagues on the board, and Dow Constantine controlling 10 of the 18 appointments to the board, this idea will not find fertile ground at the County.

33 Replies to “Dembowski on Governance Reform”

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Dembowski strongly endorsed by STB; what’s happened with this guy? What’s the overall opinion on him now versus when he first joined the board? Just curious.

    1. Well, the two somewhat questionable actions have been the pushback against Metro cuts and this.

      For all the trust Dow has earned from transit advocates, it’s not really clear to me that Dembowski isn’t right about the Metro cuts. It certainly doesn’t put him in the villain column.

      As for this, I believe him when he says that he doesn’t actually support governance reform. I think he’s trying to use the threat of it to tweak the Board appointments. To which I say, meh.

  2. Gah—please disable autoplay on that video! It is enough to drive one crazy!

    How about it North King cities want governance reform, we split North King from Seattle and drop the equal taxing provision? Good luck funding anything that way, Shoreline.

    1. I know I sound like a broken record, but it seems to me that Seattle needs openly and perhaps a bit obnoxiously to begin making plans for a legislative refusal to grant an ST3 vote or a failed vote. The City Council should fund a thorough legal study of re-purposing the Monorail Tax Authority to build a heavy rail version of Option D Ballard-Fremont-LQA-Downtown with a westernmost station at 22th NW and move the one at 15th NW to between 15th and 14th. This wouldn’t be the exact Green Line alignment so there may be some difficulty there, but as I understand it, the legislation does not force the technology to be “Monorail” but merely forbids it from being “Light Rail”. So “heavy rail” with third rail power distribution would probably be just fine.

      Then, investigate the possibility of creating LID’s for stations around 48th and Leary, between 43rd and 50th from Fremont to Whitman, around 45th and Wallingford/Meridian and a last around 45th and Latona and build Ballard-UW as heavy rail pure subway as well. The downtown line would separate from the Ballard-UW line just east of the 48th and Leary station.

      Offer ORCA transfers between the “Seattle Subway” and other transit, obviously. Build the system so that there is the ability to interchange cars with a future “cross-town” subway from the west end of Elliott, through LQA, a couple of stations in SLU, Capitol Hill, the area around Broadway and Madison, 14th and Jackson then the Link Stations at Jimi Hendrix and Mt. Baker.

      The city can afford to do this on its own dime — after all, without ST3 it will have more dimes to spend itself — and it probably won’t take any longer than waiting for “ST4” to get the cross-town line. More to the point, it can emphasize making the lines “urban” with more frequent but less palatial stations.

      I realize that a significant problem with this is “where do we put the maintenance facility?” and it’s a good question. However, I think I know an answer. There was at one time a rail bridge connecting taking the Northern Pacific passenger line that is now the Burke Gilman trail across the waterway just east of the Ballard Bridge. You can see the curved approaches along West Ewing Street north of Nickerson.

      On the other side of the waterway, between about 40th and 43rd between the Burke Gilman right of way and the waterway there is a large enough piece of land to accommodate it, I think. Right now it’s very spread out casual industrial from the looks of things. It would require a bit more tunnelling to connect it with the actual lines a few blocks north, but that’s not out of the question; the 48th and Leary station would have to be “stacked” to accommodate the route division anyway, so the access to the MF could be a second set of turnouts from the downtown line. To limit construction costs, all trains would enter service westbound toward 22nd Avenue and leave it eastbound toward downtown. It’s only three stations from the end of the line so that wouldn’t be a horrible deadhead.

      As final icing on the cake, it’s not unreasonable to build waterfront development above the MF. With third rail power distribution, the portion dedicated to parking trains would only need to be about fourteen feet high.

      1. The monorail tax authority probably isn’t enough money to build option D. However Ballard-UW is within the available funds. The wording in the statute is vague, so it is unclear if there would really need to be much difference from Link in order to comply with the law,

        That said high-floor third rail powered transit would almost certainly qualify.

        There has been some talk of having Seattle Subway present a plan B if ST3 doesn’t happen in 2016.

      2. Also it is best both to avoid the learning curve of a start-up agency and bureaucratic pissing matches to simply hand the money to Sound Transit to design, build, operate, and maintain any new lines.

      3. Chris, I would agree, except that Sound Transit has repeatedly proven themselves incompetent at designing lines with urban stop spacing and reasonable station access. I agree they should build lines – but, until we get some provable change, I wouldn’t trust them with any more design unless Seattle is careful to keep ultimate control.

      4. Before you advocate for a citywide initiative to massively tax people throughout the city for Ballard-Downtown or Ballard-UW, you should look at the electoral prospects. I would bet my house that such a ballot measure would fail. Why would anyone South of the Ship Canal vote for it? The Rainier Valley already has rail and the frustration level with the transportation situation in West Seattle is already at a boiling point. We may all be liberal, pro-transit folks, but the idea of paying large taxes and being told to wait until 2040, won’t play in West Seattle.

      5. William,

        As they say, he who pays the piper calls the tune. I’m not too worried Sound Transit will completely screw up the design of any lines the city of Seattle self-funds. In any case there will be a local entity with oversight on how the money is spent.

      6. Reality,

        Sorry, but that is the dilemma for any rail beyond ST2 in Seattle. The money simply isn’t there to build all the things.

        If you build to West Seattle first why would anyone elsewhere in the city vote for it? You say West Seattle residents are to the boiling point over transportation issues, well so are residents of NW Seattle.

        Ballard is clearly the next priority for rail. In terms of cost effectiveness, ridership, and transit supportive land use Ballard-Downtown and Ballard-UW make much more sense as rail lines than trying to serve West Seattle.

        Crossing the Duwamish alone will be very expensive due to the need for a high level bridge. Due to the low density and spread out nature of West Seattle any rail line is going to have very low ridership for the cost.

        A back of envelope cost estimate would be roughly $2.5 billion dollars for an IDS to Alaska Junction rail line. Average weekday boardings would likely be less than 20,000.

        Assuming ST3 doesn’t happen in 2016 Ballard-UW is cost effective, has the most impact on transportation, and most importantly can be built with the available funds. The only other project that makes anywhere near as much sense would be a second rail-convertible DSTT.

      7. Chris,

        I agree with William for exactly the same reasons. But not only do I want more stations, I want more realistic stations. There’s no reason to build monuments underground; Seattle is not rebuilding the Moscow Subway and has no need to do so. ST has two designs for a station: open platforms with a pair of thirty foot shelters on each side or a four story palace. Something intermediate and more utilitarian should be fine.


        Grover Norquist has won, that’s all I have to say.

    2. Plan B’s (mostly initiatives) have been successful recently in improving the Plan A’s, so there is a potential benefit if Seattle outlines a go-it-alone alternative. It would have to be careful to avoid harming Plan A though, and we’d have to think through the ramifications and unintended consequences.

      Seattle could merely ask the legislature to repeal the “not light rail” clause, independent of ST3. That would avoid the uncertainty and legal challenges to what is allowed. But the legislature may demand other changes too, and there’s one we might be interested in. The signature threshold for a “monorail” authority is unusually low: that’s how the half-baked scheme got on the ballot in November. We should offer to raise it to the standard level or at least partway, even though that would increase our burden to pass something. Because the low threshold is a double-edged sword: it helps us but it also helps clueless/irresponsible proposals. I was afraid the monorail measure might pass and throw a wrench in citywide cost-effective improvements.

      1. A better approach might be to allow a regional ST3 measure, but also repurpose the monorail authority to allow ST to build to both West Seattle and Ballard.

    1. Yes, putting the King County DA on the Sound Transit board will be a great idea to help prepare them for more NIMBY lawsuits!


      1. That’s only half dumb. We should instead create a new elected position for Sound Transit General Counsel.

    2. That is a guarantee that two bad things will happen. One, Covington will want a rail line “for the jobs!”, and eventually get it. And two, the entire system will be commuter oriented much more than it is now.

    3. Luckily Covington is outside the ST district. The boundary is Everett – Mill Creek – Woodinville – Redmond – Issaquah – Renton – Kent – Auburn – Puyallup – Bonney Lake – Lakewood – Du Pont.

  3. If we really want the ST Board to be more representative, then make it the King County Council and Executive, plus three (or whatever the proportional number is based on population) reps each from Pierce and Snohomish.

    Piling on more suburban mayors is anti-proportional-representation and anti-reform.

    Having all those mayors carpool from distant locations one to four times a month to the Ruth Fisher Boardroom comes with a carbon footprint, takes time away from the constituents back home, and produces more logrolling than representation.

      1. I just spent some quality time with a Snohomish County Mayor. That person’s schedule is BOOOKED. Transit doesn’t work so well for elected officials overbooked…

  4. From what I can tell, Dembowski is just pointing out that “governance reform” is a thing that we may see again in the Legislature and that King County should take proactive steps to deal with it. He’s right about that.

    Just as he was right that the County should seek ways to avoid bus cuts.

    Looks to me like Dembowski is a strong advocate for transit – as is Dow Constantine and the other Democrats on the King County Council.

  5. Can anybody tell me a single improvement resulting form the last change of “governance”- the one that merged Metro with King County?

    Because the main thing I remember about that campaign is that the attention of every single official responsible for overseeing the Downtown Seattle Transit Project was completely preoccupied with this matter at the time the DSTP needed active oversight the most.

    With the result that whichever way the election had gone, the most critical transit project of a half century suffered needless and preventable damage from the diversion itself. The exact same thing will happen if change proposed here is adopted. “Meh- My Ears Hurt!- will be best possible outcome.

    The most effective way for Councilman Dembowski to achieve any positive result in any direction is to develop a reputation for being able to make intelligent decisions, short and long term. And even more, be ready and willing to take personal responsibility for their outcome and results.

    This is the change on “Governance” that transit and every other public utility in this region desperately needs. Leadership is a set of tools. Whoever is the first to pick up any one of them will attract people and power to their cause just by force of example.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I don’t think the Sound Transit board has lacked either for strong leadership or for representation from North King County.

      Furthermore Sound Transit has benefited from excellent leadership on the part of Ms. Earl. Indeed I’d say one of the key tasks for the board is ensuring there is someone of equal caliber ready to take over when she decides it is time for her to retire.

  6. Because I like Joni so much, as well as because she doesn’t deserve to be included, I won’t award her any blame for this whole region’s oldest, most damaging, and least excusable defect:

    That 18 years after Sound Transit came in, the “separate agencies” argument is still so seriously in the way of the integrated transit system the voters were promised

    A clumsy and incomprehensible fare system is beyond merely annoying- Portland’s civic arrangement doesn’t cause this problem there. “Separate agencies”- and “subareas”- are also the reason for the inexcusable waste of operating time where we need it most, in the DSTT at rush hour. # Fareboxes.

    But worse is the complete lack of communication between systems where passengers’ interests- and safety- demand hundred percent coordination on connections. So elderly women with a freightload of luggage don’t have to wait half an hour in the dark at SR 512 transit center starting 30 seconds after the 574 pulls out in front of our northbound Intercity Transit bus from Olympia.

    With drivers who just about brag that it’s not their problem because their agencies don’t share communications. Which is true only because their agencies don’t feel like it, not because equipment for a remedy isn’t available.

    Like just about all our officials, Joni Earl is neither stupid, nor incompetent, nor alcoholic, nor corrupt. But because I like her, I’ll exempt her from the rest of this thought: “Which means that none of them have those usual excuses for not being able to get simple, capital-free things done.”

    So if Rod Dembowski will, for instance, start making sure voters region wide understand the financial cost of these divisions and encouraging voters to get their reps to fix these divisions he’ll probably find enough support to bring about an end to them.

    And start repeatedly reminding his fellow reps and the management they hire that car travel’s giant advantage over fragmented transit is its ability to make agency and subarea boundaries invisible.

    And very soon, Rod will see how much he can advance public transit without touching the “governance” of anything. Know you and your staff read STB, Joni. Have a good Holiday Season.


    1. Mark;
      I am of the view one agency from the Snohomish-Skagit line to Olympia-ish would be best. However I don’t see Everett giving up Everett Transit and I don’t see King County Council giving up control of Metro ever.
      The best bet at this point is get them to plan a seamless system and buy everything from computers to buses & engines in bulk.

      1. The US can be intensely conservative. If this were another country, the county borders would simply be redrawn to make sense (since they don’t right now).

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