Opinion

Sound Transit’s party foul was poorly timed

Conductor William Shillinglow steps off the Sounder train at the Lakewood Sounder Station as Sound Transit tested trains on the new track from Tacoma to Lakewood in 2012. This rail segment was a big gain for South Sound commuters. How long until the next one?
Conductor William Shillinglow steps off the Sounder train at the Lakewood Sounder Station as Sound Transit tested trains on the new track from Tacoma to Lakewood in 2012. This rail segment was a big gain for South Sound commuters. How long until the next one? The News Tribune file photo

Sound Transit knows something about uphill climbs. When the transit agency was completing its Sounder extension from Tacoma to Lakewood five years ago, its engineers found a way to conquer an unusually steep grade along 1.4-miles of track that runs south from Freighthouse Square.

Now the agency faces another tall challenge: how to persuade a sprawling base of voters in three metropolitan counties, many who would prefer to order their mass-transit projects a la carte, to approve a regionwide $50 billion table d’hote menu in the November election.

Sound Transit 3 is best viewed as a legacy for our children and grandchildren, who will share the roads with a million new residents over the next 2  1/2 decades. Its key elements — such as extending light rail south to Tacoma and north to Everett by 2033 — won’t be completed in the lifetimes of many voters who will decide its fate.

Government leaders around the Sound are pushing the agency to accelerate timelines. Debates have also swirled over whether ST3 includes the correct balance of transit options (light rail vs. Sounder commuter trains vs. high-speed bus service) and a proper mix of tax sources.

Taxpayers will be asked to raise their sales taxes and motor vehicle excise taxes, as they did in 1996 and 2008. But for the first time, Sound Transit also wants to levy a property tax; in Pierce County, it would amount to $66.25 a year for a house valued at $265,000, the median home price. That spooks local government officials who rely on the property tax as a prime revenue source. The mayors of Lakewood, DuPont and Steilacoom wrote a letter to Sound Transit saying so.

To its credit, Sound Transit has collected public input this spring via open houses and surveys. Officials have pledged to tweak their draft plan in the next few weeks and speed up some projects where feasible.

But the agency also recently racked up some debits on its public-relations balance sheet. It paid a premium price for a marketing and publicity venture that caused many observers to question its stewardship of taxpayer money.

The Seattle Times reported last week that the agency spent $858,379 to host an opening gala for two light-rail stations in March.

Educating neighbors about the new transit option is imperative, and special events are a reasonable way to spread the message. But the eye-popping total tab suggests excessive scale and production values, especially the roughly $50,000 that went to frills such as commemorative tote bags, buttons, VIP goodies and decorative paper trains.

The cost might seem like a drop in a very large bucket; officials say the new rail segment has already brought in $1 million more in fare revenue than predicted. Even so, it left the impression that the agency, which seeks to collect taxes from Puget Sounders through 2040 and beyond, thinks it’s playing with board-game money.

At the very least, the expensive festivities stirred up a public-relations mess at a time when Sound Transit can ill afford one.

If you want to throw a party that extravagant, why not enlist corporate sponsors to foot the bill? That’s how the state Department of Transportation covered all but $100,000 of the $750,000 party tab for the opening of the new state Route 520 floating bridge last month.

WSDOT, incidentally, took some heat for what it planned to spend on the 2007 opening ceremonies of the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It ended up making $88,500 in cuts to the original $350,000 party pricetag.

Sound Transit officials should exhibit similar cost-consciousness when they throw their next public event, before the debut of a Park & Ride near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in September.

“We will take a closer look going forward,” spokesman Geoff Patrick said Monday. Such introspection could prove helpful as they strive to have something really big to celebrate in November, on Election Day.

Sound Transit has the lofty task of persuading voters to make an unprecedented investment in mass-transit infrastructure. There’s no need to add degrees of difficulty to an already uphill climb.

  Comments