Mixed Views On Transit Elections Bill

The Washington State Senate held a public hearing January 25 on a bill to require Sound Transit board members be elected. Currently they are appointed. Among those testifying in support were former State Auditor Brian Sonntag, far left at table, and Mariya Frost of the Washington Policy Center, second from left. Photo: Mike Richards

Transportation stakeholders including policy experts, a former state auditor, state lawmakers and local and regional officials, at a January 25 Washington State Senate Transportation Committee hearing had mixed reactions to a Republican-sponsored bill that would mandate direct elections for the state’s only regional transit agency.

Sound Transit’s 19 board members are currently elected officials appointed by their respective county executives, with approval by the county councils. SB 5001 would have those members directly elected starting in 2018, by creating 19 districts within the agency’s jurisdiction, and prohibit elected officials from running for any of the seats. Sound Transit is currently the state’s only regional transit agency, but the bill would apply to any others created.

Amendments Would Be Likely

Some testifying to the Senate panel said the bill would improve board accountability on promises made about the cost, performance, and completion time of transit projects.

However, some local elected officials who serve on the board say the move would add an unnecessary layer of government, and complicate the transit project construction process. Comments from committee members indicate amendments are likely if SB 5001 is to advance.

Supporters: Direct Representation Best

Chief sponsor Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) told panel members that Sound Transit “needs to be directly accountable to the taxpayers” to ensure tax dollars are well spent on transit projects. “Everyone on this dias knows…through personal experience the crucible of direct elections makes one’s mind focused on the needs and concerns of the taxpayers,” he said. “This is an altogether healthy and proper thing.”

In agreement is Brian Sonntag, Washington State Auditor from 1992 through 2012. A 2012 state performance audit on Sound Transit raised concerns about oversight, forecasting and reserves; and also questioned the practice of appointing elected officials to the board.

“When citizens cast their votes for most of these city and county officials, they have no way of knowing whether they will one day serve on Sound Transit’s Board, or the positions they may take if appointed,” the audit states.

Sonntag reiterated this sentiment January 25 when he told panel members “to me, the governance that is most effective, that is most accountable to citizens, is the model that is closest to citizens.”

Big Projects, Mixed Record

Formed in 1993, Sound Transit operates 27 express buses, two commuter rail lines, and two light rail lines in the counties of King, Snohomish, and Pierce.

Last year, voters approved ST3, a $54 billion transportation package that will add 62 new miles of light rail and providing new bus rapid transit (BRT) lines. When fully completed, Sound Transit estimates 600,000 daily riders on the light rail lines. However, this assumes a significant shift away from current bus ridership after the light rail lines are finished.

Past Sound Transit projects have had trouble delivering on time and on budget.

The agency admitted in 2001 the first phase of a light rail line project in the voter-approved “Sound Move” package was $1 billion over its $2.5 billion budget, and three years behind schedule. The project total cost was revised to $3.6 billion.

In 1994, the board said light rail service to Everett would be a top priority in the ST2 package eventually approved by the public. Yet, a light rail line to the city was only approved with ST3 last fall, and won’t be completed until 2041.

‘They Have Never Delivered…On Time And On Budget’

They have never delivered a project on time and on budget based on what they promised the voters,” Todd Woosley said to panel members. He is a member of the Eastside Transportation Association (ETA). Others ETA members also testified January 25 in favor of SB 5001.

O’Ban told panel members the lack of elections provides no incentive for Sound Transit to deliver ST3 as promised, because “they don’t need to go back to the people for consent. They can just keep spending.”

Eligibility An Issue

However, the bill drew its share of criticism, from Sound Transit officials and via questions from Sen. Marko Liias (D-21), Assistant Ranking Minority Member of Transportation. He questioned several aspects of the legislation, including the provision banning elected officials from running for a board positon. O’Ban said he was open to modifying the bill, adding that he still believes the majority of the large board should not be current local or regional elected officials.

Liias also questioned the provision creating 19 voting districts, with each member presenting 145,000 residents within a county. He said, “my constituents are going to lose their voice” by having less representation from Snohomish County. “We can have at least three board members today,” he added.

The apprehension was shared by Senator Steve Hobbs (D-44), who told colleagues he was concerned Snohomish and Pierce County wouldn’t get a “fair shake. My fear is that if this bill passes, there will be regionalism.”

Also opposed to holding direct elections is Redmond Mayor John Marchione, a Sound Transit Board member. He told Lens that “it’s another layer of government” and would be “waste of public resources.” He added that having local government officials on the board allows them to better negotiate land use permits needed for Sound Transit projects, and represent their communities’ interests.

The sentiment was echoed by Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland at the January 25 hearing. “There’s a nexus between local government, regional government and having a regional transportation system that benefits all of us,” she said.

Yet, having appointed members might also mean little room for internal dissent. In 2001, then-Board Member and King County Councilmember Rob McKenna was removed due to his criticism of Sound Transit’s planned light rail line.

It was a problem highlighted at the January 25 meeting by Mariya Frost, Transportation Director for the Washington Policy Center. “When a political body becomes an echo chamber…we should be concerned,” she said.

A bipartisan companion bill, HB 1029, has been introduced and referred to the House Transportation Committee. Among its cosponsors is State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37), whose district includes sections of Seattle and Renton.

All the Senate bill’s co-sponsors, like O’Ban, are Republicans. They include the chair of the transportation panel, Sen. Curtis King (R-14), plus Sen. Mark Miloscia (R-30), Sen. Jan Angel (R-26), Sen. Randi Becker (R-2), Sen. Mike Padden (R-4), Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-15), and Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-32).

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