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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Why preclude future voter revisit for ST-3?

When American poet John Greenleaf Whittier penned his memorable couplet "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'" it was an ode to the maiden in the field and the nobleman who rode by, noticed her, but decided not to stop. It was an ode to lost love but has become a reference point to remind individuals or groups about lost opportunity.
 
Thus ever since Puget Sound voters, almost a half century ago, briefly met at the ballot a light rail package from which they turned away, the "might have been" has been dangled like a badge of shame whenever a new rail-based transportation package is discussed.

After all, Atlanta got our federal funds and built a light-rail system.

 

 

The might-have-been lament is being played again this year in the Puget Sound area, among other arguments put forth by proponents of $54 billion ST-3, a proposal that would provide a 25-year basically blank check to Sound Transit to create a system that will connect an array of communities across three counties.

 

As posed at the start of his op-ed piece in the Seattle Times, my friend Charles Collins, whose background as a civic leader and transportation expert provide impeccable credentials for the integrity of his comments: "$54 billion. Really? The sheer size of Sound Transit 3 staggers the imagination. A Google search yields nothing remotely comparable ever asked of local voters...anywhere."

 

Collins went on to point out that Sound Transit's own statistics show it won't reduce congestion, despite its election-season claims. "Buried in Sound Transit's original Environmental Impact Statement is a very different story: their own analysis indicated that there would be no difference in congestion whether the rail system were built or not built."

 

One story for an environmental impact statement and another for the voters might seem dishonest. But the fact is, I and most citizens have a respect for the integrity of individual members of the board, each a local elected official in one of three counties.

 

But I'm equally convinced that as a board, the members' candor tends to give way to the group reality that commitment of major public dollars means major income to an array of contractors, architects, professional firms, and so on. And each makes campaign contributions to those board members when they run for re-election to their local offices, which is obviously the main function of each of those elected officials, with Sound Transit board membership a secondary, or supportive, duty.

 

That's why there should be no surprise in the story this week in the Seattle Times that 62 percent of the money for the campaign on behalf of ST-3 has come from contractors, engineers, suppliers, unions and others for whom the $54 billion would be an income and jobs windfall.

 

There are many who have made the points Collins made but I quote him primarily because his views were so cogently stated in his Times' op-ed piece and because, while others may be assailed for having vested interested in opposing ST-3, even proponents of the plan would concede there's not much way to try to question his credentials.

 

Collins, incidentally, was being a little generous in saying nothing similar has been asked of local voters. The fact is that the amount local voters here are being asked to approve with ST-3 is 25 percent greater than voters in the entire state of California approved in 1968 so 800 miles of high-speed rail lines connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco could be built. So the three-county proposal is greater than even the pricetag on the most costly plan put forward in the nation's largest state.

 

The California plan, naturally described to voters in 2008 as "visionary," is to whoosh riders from Southern California to San Fran in an unheard-of two hours and 40 minutes. The trains would reduce air pollution and ease congestion on the state's famously clogged freeways and construction would create tens of thousands of new jobs. So the voters approved $9.95 billion in bonds of the $43 billion plan to usher in a new era of transit for the Golden State.

 

But times have changed, and the recent past has been a rough time for the project. The latest poll shows that 59 percent of Californians would vote against the bonds if they could do it again. Cost estimates have grown from $43 billion to at least $98 billion, and the completion date of the first phase has been pushed back 13 years.

 

If ST-3 is approved and in a few years it becomes obvious that $54 billion and 25 years are dramatic underestimates, which would parallel what is happening in California, the same inability of the voters in this region to rethink what would have become a very bad idea will amount to the same unfulfillable wish to do it over.

 

In fact, there's a double down on the logic of a voter review somewhere, ideally as stages of the project are completed, and that's what Collins and others point to as it being obvious "that we are at the threshold of the most fundamental transportation revolution since the combustion engine."

 

Autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles may provide a chuckle to some, but to companies ranging from Ford to Google, there's full speed ahead with the knowledge that autonomous vehicles will be here with a prominent if not dominant transportation role.

And, as Collins notes in his op-ed piece, "Opinions vary on when self-driving (autonomous) vehicles will arrive in large numbers on American streets, some say in as little as five years, some say as many as 15. No one says 2040, the year ST3 is complete."

 

"What public policies and investments will be required to take advantage of self-driving technology?" Collins questions. "New lanes? Publicly owned fleets? Contracted services with the Googles, Fords and Ubers? But whatever makes sense, it is clear that approval of ST3 rail system will commandeer all reasonably available local transportation funds for a generation and preclude any chance to advance new technology."

 

That's why I find it intriguing, in a most troubling way, to have people I basically respect being absolutely adamant in insisting there's no reason that voters should have an opportunity to review the progress of a $54 billion quarter-century plan at various intervals.

Never mind that it might be an outdated transportation mode in a quarter century.

 

To echo the most compelling of Collins' comments: "Really?"
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