Traffic

Big businesses pouring money into the Sound Transit 3 ‘yes’ campaign

This is the new Angle Lake station for Sound Transit’s Link light rail. It’s on on South 200th Street in SeaTac. This view is from the new parking structure, seen Tuesday.
This is the new Angle Lake station for Sound Transit’s Link light rail. It’s on on South 200th Street in SeaTac. This view is from the new parking structure, seen Tuesday. phaley@thenewstribune.com

Voters should prepare for an onslaught of pro-Sound Transit 3 advertising in coming weeks as supporters of the $54 billion measure to expand light rail in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties begin to spend in earnest from their $2 million war chest.

Mass Transit Now late last month shelled out $800,000 to a Fairfax, Virginia-based media consulting firm that has run campaigns for, among others, several U.S. senators, Planned Parenthood, the Washington Education Association and U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina.

And the group still has more than $800,000 in the bank, according to the latest records filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Mass Transit Now spokesman James Canning last week declined to say what voters are likely to see from Screen Strategies Media, which bills itself as delivering its clients’ messages “to the right audience in the right place and at the right time.”

Canning hinted that online advertising would be part of the package, but was tight-lipped about further plans.

Mass Transit Now late last month shelled out $800,000 to a Fairfax, Virginia-based media consulting firm that has run campaigns for, among others, several U.S. senators, Planned Parenthood, the Washington Education Association and U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina.

“We don’t speak to the specifics of our advertising, as that is campaign strategy,” he said.

By contrast, the committee opposing ST3, as Proposition 1 is known, has raised just more than $10,000 and will rely on volunteers and word-of-mouth to counter Mass Transit Now’s media blitz.

“You’re not going to see any glossy TV ads from us,” said Kevin Wallace, a Bellevue city councilman and a member of the No Sound Transit 3 committee.

He contended that most of the money pouring into Mass Transit Now’s bank accounts is from businesses and corporations with a vested interest in the outcome of the election.

“I don’t begrudge those companies trying to make a profit,” said Wallace, who owns a commercial real estate company. “But the voters should be asking whether they should tax themselves as much as Sound Transit is asking in order to create profit centers for these companies.”

The “yes” campaign indeed has built its bankroll mainly with contributions from big corporations, Microsoft among them, and engineering, law and construction firms that either have done business with the agency or stand to if voters approve ST3.

Microsoft so far has contributed the most, $306,000 in cash and in-kind services. One of the projects proposed under ST3 is a light-rail extension to Redmond, where the software giant is headquartered.

Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick scoffed at the idea of a quid pro quo.

“There is no basis whatsoever to this claim,” Patrick said. “Sound Transit work is awarded strictly on the basis of competitive procurements designed to guarantee taxpayers get the best deal possible.

“From beginning to end, each procurement process is designed to be fair and impartial, including the evaluation of bids or proposals objectively and in accordance with the published evaluation criteria and contract requirements.”

One political science professor at the University of Washington Seattle said that, in the end, where the money comes from probably doesn’t matter.

“You still have to convince people that this is a good thing to do,” professor Mark A. Smith said.

 
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, center, speaks with Sound Transit Board Chairmain Dow Constantine, right, and Board member Dave Upthegrove, left, on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016. The train ride for the media from Sea-Tac Airport to Angle Lake Station before passenger service starts this Saturday. Lui Kit Wong lwong@thenewstribune.com

$54 billion request

Sound Transit 3 is one of the biggest public-works funding requests in Washington history.

The measure, if approved, would raise $54 billion to build transit facilities in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties over the next 25 years.

Tacoma would be connected to the light-rail spine that runs from Seattle to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by 2030, with that line continuing on to Tacoma Community College by 2039.

Other Pierce County projects include extending Sounder commuter rail to DuPont and improving the bus system along the Pacific Avenue/state Route 7 corridor.

Also under the plan, light rail would reach Everett by 2036. It would run lines to Ballard and Edmonds over the next 25 years.

About half the money to pay for ST3 would come from new taxes: a sales-tax increase of 0.5 percent, an increase in the motor vehicle excise tax of 0.8 percent and the addition of 25 cents per $1,000 valuation to local property taxes. There are no sunset dates on those taxes.

The rest would be paid from existing taxes, federal grants, bonding and other sources.

Supporters of the measure contend transit expansion, especially the light rail piece, is needed to address current congestion and that anticipated by continued population growth in the Puget Sound area.

Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition, spoke this month in Tacoma at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a transformative transportation system for this region,” Ranganathan said. “We are growing very rapidly. We are an attractive place to live and work. Unless we have a clear plan to address the way we move people efficiently and effectively, we are going to be stuck in gridlock.”

Don Golden spoke at the same forum on behalf of No Sound Transit 3.

He called the proposal a “boondoggle” that would cost too much, take too long to build and not do enough to address traffic congestion.

What’s more, he said, the measure was putting state education funding at risk by allowing Sound Transit for the first time to tap into sales taxes, a revenue stream that traditionally has gone to fund public schools.

ST3 supporters deny that contention.

There are other, less expensive ways, to improve transit options in the region, including expanding bus rapid transit, Golden said.

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a transformative transportation system for this region.

Shefali Ranganathan, executive director of Transportation Choices Coalition

 
The new Angle Lake station for Sound Transit’s Link light rail, seen Tuesday, is on South 200th Street in SeaTac. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com

Microsoft, Vulcan in ‘yes’ camp

Big business certainly is lining up behind ST3, judging from campaign contribution reports.

In addition to Microsoft’s $300,000, Costco has contributed $100,000 in cash, as have Amazon, Expedia and Paul Allen’s venture, Vulcan Inc.

Mass Transit Now spokesman Canning said businesses likely consider the package as a way to increase their employees’ productivity, improve the region’s business climate and enhance overall quality of life.

“They see it as a tremendous value,” he said.

A light rail line to Redmond certainly would be of value to Microsoft as a big chunk of the company’s more than 44,000 Puget Sound employees work at the Redmond campus.

The company offers its own private bus service to get many employees to their jobs, including from neighborhoods in Seattle and Bellevue.

“Sound Transit 3’s expansion of light rail will provide more options for commuters,” Irene Plenefisch, Microsoft’s director of government affairs, said in a statement supplied by the company. “It represents an important infrastructure upgrade that will help maintain a high quality of life in the Puget Sound region and support our growing economy.”

Costco, too, would see the benefit of a light rail line to Issaquah, where its 5,000-employee headquarters is located.

Frank Dennis, chairman of No Sound Transit 3, said many of the big-money contributors see the passage of ST3 as a gravy train, especially companies that have made millions off two previous Sound Transit measures.

“They expect to get paid off by getting the contracts to build it,” he said.

Canning said no.

“The idea of a quid pro quo is simply nonsense,” he said.

Sound Transit 3’s expansion of light rail will provide more options for commuters. It represents an important infrastructure upgrade that will help maintain a high quality of life in the Puget Sound Region and support our growing economy.

Irene Plenefisch, Microsoft’s director of government affairs

Many companies that have done business with Sound Transit in the past are giving money to Mass Transit Now, public disclosure records show.

One of them is Kansas City, Missouri-based HTNB Corp., which bills itself as “an employee-owned infrastructure solutions firm serving public and private owners and contractors.”

HTNB, which has an office in Bellevue, has contributed $70,000 in cash to Mass Transit Now and has paid for catering, venue rental, parking and other costs associated with “yes” campaign events, public disclosure records show.

The company has done business with Sound Transit for years, according to agency records.

This year, the Sound Transit board approved a $70 million contract with a $3 million contingency to a joint venture between HTNB and Jacobs Engineering Group to provide “civil final design services” for the Lynnwood light rail extension.

Efforts to reach an HTNB spokeswoman for comment were unsuccessful.

 
Sound Transit Board member Dave Upthegrove addresses the media Wednesday at Angle Lake Station in SeaTac. The media attended an exclusive train ride from Sea-Tac Airport to Angle Lake Station before passenger service starts this Saturday. Lui Kit Wong lwong@thenewstribune.com

Does it matter?

Smith said the hubbub over who’s funding the campaigns is overblown.

Sound Transit, he pointed out, is an unusual entity in that it must get public approval for all of its projects, unlike the state or a city, which can collect taxes and then spend the money through a budgeting process.

That means there must be an election, and by extension campaigning, every time Sound Transit wants to embark on expansion, Smith said.

Unlike many ballot measures with an ideological bent — such as those proposing new environmental rules, gun restrictions or relaxation of drug laws — transit generally does not inflame the passions of voters, at least not to the extent that they will contribute money for or against, he said.

“Who really cares about a light-rail extension enough to contribute to it? Not many people,” Smith said. “With one exception: The business interests and contractors who would build it. That’s where the money is going to come from. I kind of see it as inevitable.”

Is that worrisome?

Smith said it’s not, at least not to the extent the “no” campaign is making it out to be. Research has shown that business interests are much more successful at blocking proposed legislation than at passing it, he said.

“They are good at shooting things down,” Smith said, pointing to the GMO labeling initiative of 2013 as an example.

Business interests and others opposed to that initiative, which would have required that foods sold in Washington that had been genetically modified carry a label saying so, contributed $22 million to the “no” campaign.

The initiative was handily defeated.

“There is often a status quo bias among voters,” Smith said. “If they are confused or unsure about something, they tend to vote no, to just keep things as they are.”

Persuading them to vote yes can be challenging.

“When you’re on the yes side, you have to prove something,” Smith said. “You have to convince people that this is a good thing to do, and, in this specific case, that they should tax themselves to do it.”

Mass Transit Now is banking on the hope that $2 million will help with that sales job.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam

  Comments