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  • [Note: The opinions expressed below are those of the author alone.]

SB 5001, a bill that would change Sound Transit into an 11 member elected board will be making its way to the House Transportation Committee soon as promised by Judy Clibborn according to The News Tribune

BART of course has the favorite 2003 extension to SFO Airport. An airport connection has political will and motivation given the wide benefit to users. At the time the project was billed at $580 million, by the time construction started, it was closer to construction in 1999, the cost escalated to $1.167 billion and ended up costing $1.483 billion by the time 2003 came. The schedule at the time had completion in 2001. The project was overbuilt given 3 terminus tracks for less than 10 minute frequency on the ends of each line, and forcing transfers from Milbrae to SFO between BARTs Red Line, Yellow line and then to the SFO People Mover if heading to a domestic terminal. See BART to SFO Study for more information. The Oakland Airport Connector played out similarly with a starting cost that is low and ends up costing 3 times as much by the time construction comes around with a fare much higher than the existing options for little to no benefit.

Warm Spring In Trouble
The Warm Springs extension is only 5.4 miles for one additional station. It was initially supposed to open in 2014 and supposed to cost $890 million. Now the opening date is unpredictable with a target of Winter of 2017. The San Francisco Chronicle stated BART’s aging infrastructure with power lines and communications system and tying new and old into each other has been the biggest difficulty and they cannot determine when it will be open. These issues should be planned around with extensions due to rapidly changing technology. As Link extends into the next decade, I hope Sound Transit has considered these possible challenges of tying into existing systems and will plan this into any capital program.

BART over the years has enjoyed great voter support and the Bay Area understands the need for frequent reliable transit. The system however has fallen upon aging times and just recently asked for maintenance dollars. Sound Transit at least planned that into Sound Transit 3 for maintenance.

In reality, this makes Sound Transit’s U-Link extension look pretty decent given the preferred alternative in 2002 dollars was projected at $830 million to $1.1 billion. Using an inflation calculator, the cost was about $350 million over the projected range given inflation to today. At the time of construction in 2009, the schedule was to open in September 2016 and was beat by 6 months.

To add onto everything eBART to East Contra Costa County was supposed to open up in 2015. Now it is projected to open in 2018. There has been a trend with BART even as an elected board which transit critics have come out after Sound Transit for with Sound Move. Over budget and behind schedule have been the trends at BART and continue to be so even with an elected board. It is difficult to determine if the Metropolitan Transportation Commission plays a large role in this or aging systems but one thing is certain. An elected transit board does not change the factors Republicans point to with projects. Many of the complaints are coming from suburban and rural constituents who do not use transit on a regular basis and have chosen to live further out. There are three Democrats who supported SB 5001 within the ST District being Bob Hasegawa of the 11th District, Guy Palumbo of the 1st District, and Steve Conway of the 29th District.

BART as an elected board has had a history of cost overruns with projects behind schedule and still does. California might be a different animal, but an elected board does not create immunity from poor leadership decisions. If the Republicans really want to help things out and ensure all citizens of this state receive a better bang for the buck with transportation costs, maybe it would be better to evaluate what delays and holds up projects and having a conversation on both sides of the aisle of what do we want to prioritize? There are only 3 directly elected transit boards in the country. BART is one, RTD in Denver is the second.

Going Forward

Given the evenly divided legislature and the bill receiving bipartisan support in the Senate 29-20,  there needs to be a push in the House Transportation Committee. Knowing history and Mary Margaret Haugen, the chair of the Transportation Committee is a very powerful position.

I would recommend the following.
1) Allow rural Pierce County that isn’t within the Pierce Transit PTBA and have regularly voted down Sound Transit packages to annex out of the district. There needs to be some reasonable standard to allow the rural areas to be outside the district given rural King and Snohomish Counties are not inside the district.
2) Reform the way vehicle depreciation is done. Get rid of the current state formula and implement something that closely follows Kelly Blue Book values. It was one reason voters likely voted in I-695 and significantly reduced transportation funding throughout the state. If taxes are more reasonable that may dial the pressure back.
3) Allow for better citizen participation in some form or another. The Citizen Oversight Panel should have a bit more say at the table rather than a rubber stamp on proposals. I personally would be open to having citizen appointments to the board with up to and no more than half the members. Citizens would get to know elected representatives with experience. Given Senator Liias’s and Conway’s remarks in the Senate Floor debate, change will need to occur.  see 50:00

There are many routes this bill could go

1) Inslee could veto the bill given there isn’t a 2/3rds majority in both chambers to override the bill given the current vote totals.
2) The bill ends up not making it out of the House Transportation Committee given Democrats have a majority there.
3) The bill ends up not making it out of the House Rules Committee for a hearing on the House Floor.
4) The bill makes it out with or without numerous amendments and to the House Floor for a vote.

I would not count on Democrats to hold a party line on this vote.

I would follow through on discussion with voters in order to bring the temperature down. We want to ensure taxpayers are receiving what they asked for in a cost effective manner.

If transit expansion is important to you, I would contact your legislators and tell them that a full directly elected board will not bring about the changes desired and may hinder the ability of Sound Transit’s work on system expansion and project delivery.

19 Replies to “SB 5001: It Won’t Work”

  1. Very well done and general agreement Daniel. I’m taking a 24-hour break from STB. I’m exhausted and hurt fighting my own peeps to give them and I an opportunity at the top rung.

    I still think transit boards should be elected – more participation by transit advocates. I also think ALL transit boards should be elected – and I wonder why Skagit Transit, Pierce Transit and Island Transit for starters aren’t also being forced to have the same access and accountability? Hmm…

    That said, I’m on a 24 hours break after this. Will respond to all replies after 1330 Hours Friday.

  2. In the general case, when should some political body/position be directly elected? For example, should the King County Library System Board of Trustees be directly elected instead of appointed? The Hearing Examiner? Each Department Secretary under the Governor? What about various planning and design commissions?

    Personally, I believe a body should generally be elected if it exercises significant power with no accountability. Sound Transit, in my opinion, has is not unaccountable because we literally just passed ST3. It can do nothing without voter approval through a measure, no new taxes or no new projects. The city council and state legislature can raise revenue and approve projects without further voter accountability. In addition, all members are elected officials themselves, effectively serve at the pleasure of the appointing bodies, and they and the appointing bodies (County Executives) can be voted out.

    I’m also deeply respectful of how the Sound Transit Board functions as a coordination body. By being composed of elected officials from around the region, these elected officials will go back to the elected bodies whose cooperation Sound Transit needs in order to do anything and gets that jurisdiction engaged. Otherwise, municipalities might not as easily cooperate with Sound Transit when it needs permits and other things.

    In light of those two items, I would consider supporting a directly elected transit board if that transit board had *power* behind it, like a city council and a legislature. So I would like a board that approve new projects and raise taxes without a ballot measure. Otherwise, it’s going to add more veto points. In addition, this board should be able to act independently without the cooperation of municipalities, even if the jurisdiction doesn’t want to approve permits. Otherwise, it’ll create a very weak and ineffectual organization.

    Separately, I’m concerned about voter fatigue. Ballots are already very long, and more things to vote for empirically leads to more voter ignorance. If there were 300 elected positions on a ballot, it would be very difficult to get voters to make informed decisions about each seat (unless you had lots of money to spam airwaves for name recognition). I know I had to spend many hours researching every candidate on my last ballot, and even then it was hard to get past the vague campaign promises to substantive policy positions. I for one cannot name my member of the Port of Seattle Commission, or even members of the State Supreme Court.

    1. CT

      I have asked myself the same question and I would then ask how much government is really needed?

      Republicans likely see it like school boards where school boards can put measures on the ballot and be approved and they are directly elected. Whether they are effective or not I don’t know.

      An irony in my county is we elect a Coroner. I just find that beyond bizarre that a position that should be based on merit.

      I feel a lot of citizen oversight groups have little to no say and are simply a rubber stamp on anything rather than people who will actually think but I find critical thinkers that want to act are few and far between. I would rather have some filtration for citizens if they were to be on the board and should have some experience in what they are doing such as an engineer, planner, etc.

      I am not sure how many single issue voters there are out there specifically on transit support but my guess is when transportation is involved and the pocketbook, there is more scrutiny to that. I doubt Constantine would lose over an issue with ST no County Council members. If people feel like they’ve been listened to and they feel good personality wise they typically are re-elected. It takes a major screw up to get voted out of office.

      1. “I feel a lot of citizen oversight groups have little to no say and are simply a rubber stamp on anything rather than people who will actually think but I find critical thinkers that want to act are few and far between.”

        Therein lays why I support SB 5001 with all its baggage. I am having to fight tooth and nail to make the Skagit version work. I know we transit advocates would do a damn better job on the transit board too.

    2. One difference is that parents have more understanding of what makes a good education, so they’re more in agreement with the school board, teachers, and education experts. Non-parents have a similar understanding, and recognize the importance of educating the region’s children because the future society depends on it.

      With transit, many citizens often have very inaccurate ideas on what makes a productive transit network. and sometimes politicians and boardmembers do too. Many people perceive the problem as freeway congestion because that’s what they experience, and they don’t make non-work trips on transit o they don’t understand that area, or even that non-work trips are the majority of people’s
      trips. So they want something that bypasses freeway congestion, which is what Everett Link, Tacoma Link, 405 BRT, and Sounder do. But they don’t understand the part about last-mile getting to the stations as well, and they underestimate the costs of P&Rs. That’s what leads to the gap between an ideal urban network and something hybrid like Link.

      An elected board may help in certain things, or it may not, depending on who gets on the board. But it won’t solve the fundamental gap in understanding between transit-network experts and the majority of the public. Nor is it guaranteed to elevate a visionary board chairman who can effectively educate and convince the public what a top-quality transit network is, so they will still have to compromise with cities’ and voters’ expectations.

      1. Another thought I have with the comparison to a school board is that I’m used to very powerful school boards. Where I went to school, school boards had lots of independent authority. Schools were exempt from zoning, health, and building codes, so they stood up their own building departments and building codes. School boards also had significant independent power to build new schools, change the curriculum and the strategic direction, and do lots of things without voter approval, having a standing stream of taxes to spend. Sure, a school board can ask for levies, but that’s the same with Seattle.

        I’m also hesitant to buy into the idea of citizen oversight groups having lots of say, because then you have the exact same problem being complained about- a board of some sort exercising lots of power that is supposedly unaccountable. Who would be doing the “filtration” and the appointing to the boar?. Feel free to have layers of professional expert appointees, but fundamentally there is and should be some elected politician that people will think to tweet at if something goes wrong. It’s one of the reasons I find the recent airport protests interesting- instead of tweeting the Port of Seattle, the Port of Seattle Police, or the Port of Seattle Commission, people were tweeting at the County Executive and the Mayor of Seattle (not even the Mayor of SeaTac).

        I’m also hesitant to agree that there is something “special” about school boards and transit boards, that people are on the same page with schools but not with transit. I’ve seen many inaccurate ideas about what makes a good education, or at least people have lots of political fights about it (Common Core, School Choice, or whatever hot button topic there is)

      2. I’m not convinced that ST needs a citizen advisory board or citizen observers on the board, but we can certainly consider structures that do that and see evaluate what improvements they would bring. Likewise for any proposals that add an elected boardmember or two without transforming the entire board structure.

    3. I think there are a lot of positions that should be appointed. Judges, prosecutors and sheriffs, for example. Someone in that position really shouldn’t have an agenda, nor should they be working on anything controversial. I’m sure those positions are elected in part to avoid conflict of interest. If you appoint the lawyers, then it is likely they will turn a blind eye if you dip into the cookie jar. But if not for that, the job should be appointed.

      But if a board is making controversial and complicated choices, they should be directly elected. Every agency does this, of course, but it is a matter of degree. The port, for example, at times has to decide whether to build another runway at the airport, or maybe even another airport. But most of the time they simply have to manage things, and that shouldn’t really require an election, but simply be an appointed position.

      Sound Transit, by its very nature, is a very controversial body. The simple choice between more rail and more bus service is controversial. Yet no one ran on the “more buses” platform, because no one ran on any platform. There isn’t a position on which to run. Every single member of the board has another — arguably more important — job. If the head of the county couldn’t control the budget, or the head of the city couldn’t handle the police, you would have a disaster on your hands, even if that person knew transit better than Jarrett Walker. Yet those same people are being asked to serve on a board, and give tiny slices of their time to jobs that are by no means simply managerial, but highly controversial and complicated. It is the worst of all worlds. The stakes are huge — holy cow, 54 billion — yet the people involved don’t have any particular expertise. Nor are they running on any relevant platform. People like me have no choice but to simply elect them (Dow is a fine executive of the county — but has no idea how to build a sensible transit system).

      As Mike said, that might not change if we directly elected a board. We might get “pro-transit” and “anti-transit” people on both sides, with no one with any clue as to how to manage the subtleties of the job (e. g. when rail makes sense, or when extra bus service does). But at least we have a shot. I honestly don’t think we can do any worse than the way things are going right now, but I also think this bill — if passed — is a lot like closing the gate after the cows escaped. Can there be any proposal that would be less efficient in moving people around than ST3? That would really take a lot of work. 405 light rail, extensions to Marysville and Lakewood. OK, I guess it wouldn’t be that hard.

      Oh, and while there is a final veto possible when it comes to what ST proposes, let’s be realistic. They aren’t offering up dozens of proposals. They aren’t saying “don’t worry, if you vote this down, we’ll come up with something different really soon”. Quite the opposite. The message was clear — either vote for this, or live with bad traffic. There was no plan B. Thus folks voted for it. Put it this way — does anyone think that the vote would be any different if the proposal was dramatically different? Just pick any combination of proposals (Metro 8 subway, Ballard to UW subway, second bus tunnel, BRT on the CKC, 6 minute service on Swift 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) — would it matter? At the end of the day this was simply a “transit yes or transit no” vote, and folks voted for more transit (in a general election vote, of course).

      So, yeah, I hope this goes through. I hope that we get people who then run, and can articulate a cost effective vision for the region, instead of simply saying “transit is good”.

  3. Given that most of rural Pierce County inside the ST district does indeed use Sounder, they shouldn’t vote themselves out of the district entirely. As long as the state is rejuggling ST’s enabling legislation, why not let different subareas have different tax rates? That way, they could vote themselves out of ST3 without affecting Sounder or ST Express.

    1. William I am not sure how you come to that conclusion.

      I would like to see the license plates and ORCA card usage in Sumner and Puyallup for people who come from Orting, Fredrickson, Graham, and Spanaway.

      1. No data, but Orting and Sumner were pushing for some kind of DMU service to link them with Sounder during the ST3 planning phase………

      2. DMUs cost much less than locomotives so they’re feasible in areas where traditional US commuter rail doesn’t work. And it’s entirely appropriate to sketch out conceptual possibilities, such as the state’s studies of Maple Valley-Auburn and Bellingham-Everett commuter rail. It’s fine in the pre-decisional phase. But actually going forward with these projects requires making sure we don’t neglect higher-priority corriodors. For instance, before ST3 Tacoma-Seattle has no all-day or frequent train service, Lakewood-Seattle has no all-day train service, and the number of Orting commuters could probably fit on a bus and (I imagine) is not encumbered by traffic.

    2. Having different subareas have different tax rates is probably the biggest, most important change that could happen. It isn’t impossible to manage things without it, but it is very difficult.

    3. Different tax rates implies different tax districts and different votes. I’m not sure if it implies different boards, or limiting votes to boardmembers in the affected subarea.

      1. I have no objection to limiting votes and stopping Far South Pierce from voting on Seattle lines.

  4. Denver RTD and their selection of mostly freeway running rail alignment looks like another poor decision that elected boards did not prevent.

  5. The Bay Area is a different animal, and things that happen there wouldn’t necessarily have the same impact here. The Bay Area is larger, the BART district is larger, it has more counties, San Francisco has proportionally less influence, and the city governments and public expectations are even worse on sprawl and infill density, and BART’s cost overruns depend on the details of those projects which we’d have to compare to ST projects, the BART board may be less conservative in cost/risk estimates, and many of BART’s decisions were made in the 1950s to 1980s when there was a different public mood and the cost of housing was low.

    Regarding Dan’s recommendations, #1 makes sense as long as southeast Pierce makes a fair contribution to Sounder. Secession could lead to Sumner and Puyallup stations being outside the ST district but the imperative to get to Tacoma and Lakewood remaining. ST1&2 were predicated on southeast Pierce paying for Sounder’s ongoing operations. It would put non-members very close to the boundary where they could still take Sounder without paying its non-fare costs. In the case of Whidbey Island and Marysville residents, it was known all along that the’d get a free ride and this was budgeted in in ST1/2/3, but in southeast Pierce’s case it would retroactively rip a hole in the budget and assumptions underlying Sounder. Would Sounder South exist in its current form if southeast Pierce hadn’t been part of the district? Or would it have been truncated in Auburn, or would we have done something else instead?

    #2, I have no expertise or opinion on the MVET calculation.

    #3, Better citizen participation might be worthwhile regardless of the board structure. An elected cittizen representative (or two or five) might be worthwhile, although I’m not sure they should have voting rights. Again, there’s no guarantee that these citizen representatives would be the most knowledgeable ones.

  6. Actually the 3.6 million population of the three counties in the BART district is only slightly more than the 3.4 million people in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties counties combined. 11 members as opposed to BART’s 9 would create districts with about 300,000 people instead of 400,000, but the fundamental dynamics would be similar. BART serves San Mateo County, which is not part of the district, and will also serve Santa Clara County.

    The BART boardmembers are not necessarily transit advocates in the sense that this blog would want. Some simply advocate for inefficient, high cost extensions to low density suburbs. The core system has therefore been neglected to the point where there are delays on literally every weekday. It’s not quite as bad as in Washington D.C., but the system is the same vintage and is suffering many of the same failings. BART put a $3 billion bond measure on the ballot last year, which got its 2/3, but that will only begin to tackle the problems.

    In the Bay Area, we routinely have dozens of votes on each ballot. We do elect the mosquito abatement board, the water and sewer board, the community college board etc. This means that a board like BART’s usually draws little interest. Few people could tell you the name of their BART director, even fewer could tell you the political issues among BART candidates.

    An elected board is no panacea, which is probably there are only three of them among the hundreds of transit boards across the country.

    1. “Some simply advocate for inefficient, high cost extensions to low density suburbs.”

      So that’s why BART goes to Pittsburgh and Dublin and, it has been suggested, to Livermore and Stockton. :) San Jose is a big city, but where are the big cities in those directions?

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