The backroom politics of Sound Transit have always included an element of provincialism masquerading as regionalism.
Board members divide the pie with one eye on making sure their area gets its share. It’s even required by the policy of “sub-area equity” – that each of the five areas gets as much in projects as it pays in taxes.
Once the deal has been struck, the unwritten rule requires that no board member trash another’s local project. In fact, the roads and transit package on the November ballot was finalized by tossing in enough local projects to get everyone to buy in.
And the overall strategy of combining the transit vote with the roads vote – either vote yes for both or no for both – was classic logrolling designed to build support among pro-transit and pro-road voters. (Odd, then, that the concrete people oppose it because there’s too much rail, the rail people because there’s too much concrete.)
Last week, King County Executive Ron Sims broke the unwritten rule. Despite voting for the massive Sound Transit II proposal and its big tax increases, despite agreeing to link it to the Regional Transportation Investment District package of road projects, Sims came out against the combined ballot measure.
In a simultaneous crisis of confidence and conscience that was as fascinating as it was bizarre, Sims said he now thinks the transit plan is too much too late. While it costs a ton, the projects won’t come on-line soon enough. He took special aim at light rail from Sea-Tac Airport to Tacoma. And he argued the plan would exacerbate global warming, issue No. 1 for a man clearly bored with being a local government official.
Why didn’t he say all that in the first place? Well, he should have, he admits, but he didn’t have the nerve. His public therapy session was a newspaper commentary taking the measures apart piece by piece that was published in The Seattle Times last week and in The News Tribune on Sunday.
It didn’t go over too well. In an e-mail first published in our political blog, Political Buzz, Sound Transit boss Joni Earl accused Sims of breaking a “no-surprises” pledge.
“That has been our relationship for 7 years through thick and thin. I just read the Times. A column of this magnitude constitutes a surprise,” Earl wrote in an e-mail posted at 6:02 a.m. the day the piece appeared.
Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg was tougher still. He portrayed Sims’ reversal of support as yet another example of Seattle slapping Tacoma around. Sims, he argues, is supportive of light rail in Seattle and its near suburbs but not so thrilled when it gets extended to Tacoma.
In the name of regionalism, Ladenburg noted, we support viaduct replacement and Highway 520 bridge renovation and light rail from Seattle to the airport but don’t get the same courtesy in return.
“You’ll understand why Pierce County voters get so upset with our neighbors to the north,” he wrote in a reply to Sims.
It wasn’t all that long ago, though, that Ladenburg himself was considered the threat to regional solutions. In June, as the roads and transit package was being finalized, Ladenburg threatened not only to take Pierce County out but also to lead the campaign to defeat it at the polls.
Why? Because the cross-base highway from Interstate 5 to Spanaway was being dropped because it was attracting opposition from environmental groups. According to Ladenburg, the whole regional package would be dumped unless people could drive from Lipoma to Tillicum.
Ladenburg prevailed and now, as predicted, the roads and transit package is fighting a rare coalition of pro-road and environmental groups. And Ladenburg is again the King of Regionalism.
In the world of unwritten rules, it’s better to throw a fit early enough for your demands to be met than to wait, like Sims, until it’s too late.
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657