Editorials

Pierce County looks meek by giving Sound Transit leadership role to King County

A Sounder heavy-rail commuter train heads out of Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square Station en route to Lakewood Station. Light rail is scheduled to connect from Federal Way to Freighthouse Square by 2030, assuming Sound Transit meets its project list on time. The agency’s board will have something to say about that.
A Sounder heavy-rail commuter train heads out of Tacoma’s Freighthouse Square Station en route to Lakewood Station. Light rail is scheduled to connect from Federal Way to Freighthouse Square by 2030, assuming Sound Transit meets its project list on time. The agency’s board will have something to say about that. News Tribune file photo, 2012

Pierce County’s touchy relationship with Sound Transit is not unlike a kid brother who’s well past adolescence and still trying to assert his rights in the family pecking order.

But sometimes kid brother doesn’t try as hard as he could.

That’s an awkward place to be, and it’s arguably where Pierce County finds itself when it should be seizing a stronger role in the three-county mass-transit network. Big decisions regarding the $54 billion Sound Transit 3 mega-project are coming soon, and nothing must stop light rail from connecting to Tacoma by 2030.

Consider a recent unfortunate transfer of leadership on Sound Transit’s 18-member board of directors. When 2018 ended, it was Pierce County’s turn to lead for the first time since 2013. Snohomish County held the board chair the last two years, and King County the three years before that.

Under Sound Transit protocol, one of Pierce’s four board representatives should hold the gavel in 2019-20. Instead, local officials allowed a colleague from suburban King County to jump the line. John Marchione, mayor of Redmond, is the new Sound Transit chair.

Granted, the position is largely ceremonial — real day-to-day power at Sound Transit rests with the large agency staff led by CEO Peter Rogoff — but the chair does exert influence by controlling the regional transit agenda.

The board’s unanimous appointment of Marchione was a gesture of courtesy; it’s his last chance to be chair, since he’s not running for reelection as mayor.

Bad move. Henry David Thoreau once wrote that “a man can suffocate on courtesy.” In politics, that’s particularly true.

For a change, we agree with Pierce County Council member Pam Roach. She’s the only local official to squawk about getting bigfooted by our neighbor to the north, which already dominates Sound Transit policy with 10 board members.

“Why in the world would we abdicate the ability to chair the Sound Transit board and give it to King County again?” Roach said at the Jan. 29 County Council meeting.

Nobody offered a good answer. Nor any answer at all.

Surrendering the post suggests a tone-deafness to local sensitivities. Many tax-averse South Sounders will never get over feeling steamrolled by their northern siblings. The coup de grace came in 2016, when a majority of Pierce voters rejected the ST3 package, yet it passed on the strength of King and Snohomish support.

Those raw feelings are helping Tim Eyman sell his $30 car-tab initiative. They’re also fueling a legislative proposal to make the Sound Transit board subject to direct public election. If the agency isn’t responsive to local concerns, the theory goes, then its funding should dry up, and its governance structure should be blown up.

Tacoma-area Republicans led by Sen. Steve O’Ban have unsuccessfully pushed for a directly elected transit board for three years. They might’ve turned a corner in 2019 by winning a few Democratic allies.

We’re opposed to Senate Bill 5220. It would add clutter to ballots (and street corners), and further politicize mass-transit decision making. Plus, voters already control the board since they elect the mayors and other local government leaders who comprise it.

More and more, however, we understand people’s frustration with obtuse transit bureaucracy.

What’s at stake for Pierce County? Work is about to shift into high gear on a 2.4-mile Tacoma Link extension from the Theater District to the Hilltop, set to open in 2022. And alignments will be selected soon to bring light rail from Federal Way to Tacoma.

Four capable local officials sit on the Sound Transit board: Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, University Place Mayor Kent Keel and Fife Mayor Kim Roscoe. One of them — probably Keel, a current vice chair — should be appointed to the top post in 2020, for two full years.

Kid brother had better stick up for himself next time.

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