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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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Sound Transit ballot plan faces emerging challenge

As Sound Transit marks its 20th birthday, it faces the biggest-ever threat to its future in the form of an emerging transportation alternative that may well cause voters in the three Central Puget Sound counties to reject the agency's $54 billion transportation package to allow the alternative time to develop.

Not even in their darkest nightmare would Sound Transit's board and the proponents of its megabillion-dollar ballot measure likely have envisioned the emergence of a growing fervor over a new transportation innovation just as the time for a November voter decision on dramatically extending the rail-based package nears.

The transportation innovation that's attracting increasing attention is autonomous vehicles, previously referred to as self-driving cars, with both automobile and truck manufacturers projecting emergence of fully autonomous vehicles within five years. And the Seattle area is being talked up as the nation's launch region for this development because companies like Google, Car2Go and ReachNow have committed to bring that about.

The challenge facing Sound Transit is that its proposal would put a lock on the region's transportation future for the next quarter century, tying it to a system for which rail is the keystone. By then autonomous vehicles and the congestion-easing result of their emergence might well render rail the transportation innovation of yesterday.

And the uncertainty surrounding the transportation future has created a growing sense, expressed not just by Sound Transit critics but also some longtime supporters, that rather than a full-blown package committing the region to a 25-year plan, a series of packages should be placed before the voters. The most recent example of growing concern over the measure called ST-3 was the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce board's decision Tuesday to oppose it.

Those pressing the idea of sending Sound Transit back to the drawing board would seek ballot proposals in staged packages, with a vote to provide funding for one segment, which would be followed by another vote when that project was completed, and so on. Then at any point, the voters could decide times have indeed changed and no more Sound Transit rail construction is desired.

As one of those longtime supporter put it when I called to get his candid thoughts: "If you are saying the voters should be offered segments of the total plan over a period of years as each prior segment is completed, of course that's logical."

But Sound Transit, officially the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, formed in 1996 by the county councils of King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties, is looking to corral all 25 years' worth of funding from voters. There is a clear Sound Transit reluctance to even contemplate going back to the drawing board.

As longtime Sound Transit critic, Bellevue developer and business leader Kemper Freeman Jr., sees it, Sound Transit realizes that ST-3 is likely the last time voters might be willing to consider a mega transportation package with taxes that will hit every property owner in the three counties. Too many things, including transportation alternatives and other uses for that massive property tax amount, are certain to emerge in future years.

Intriguingly, this is the second time in its 20 years that an alternative to Sound Transit's rail focus has been offered. Despite the business and political credentials of the five people who teamed up, a year after Sound Transit began operation, to suggest a lower-cost and more efficient idea than the then-planned $1.6 billion Link Light Rail, the idea was basically brushed aside back in 2000.

The plan was called Ride Free Express, offered by two former governors John Spellman, a Republican, and Democrat Booth Gardner, along with John Runstad and Matt Griffin, two well-regarded business leaders, and Charles Collins, one of the region's long-respected transportation experts.

The plan would have eliminated fares for existing as well an expanded express bus fleet and created vanpools, reducing peak congestion by 5 percent at a price a sixth of the cost of new riders on Sound Transit's Link Light Rail, "even assuming they could build, LINK for the original $1.6 billion," Collins said. A recent Seattle Times analysis showed that in the end LINK wasn't built for that price, actually exceeding its budget by 87 percent.

"All of our projections, including that our plan would attract six times the number of new riders, flowed from well-established and independent market studies or actual transit experience," Collins notes. "Not a single board member except Rob McKenna thought that the issues we raised were even slightly interesting."

"They were committed to a project whereas we wanted to reduce congestion," Collins summarized pointly.

"Nothing has changed," said Collins, whose credentials include having been Spellman's Chief King County Adminstrator, Director of Metro Transit and chair of the Northwest Power Planning Council, the State Higher Education Coordinating Board and the State Commission on Student Learning.

Indeed while Sound Transit operates express bus services in addition to rail and light rail service to the region, there has been little doubt in the community that members of the board view themselves as creators of the region's light rail system.

Sound Transit and its proponents have routinely tried to picture the opposition as primarily Kemper Freeman., since a wealthy Eastside businessman makes an easy target for those Seattlites who view rail as something approaching Holy Grail. 

Collins, with impeccable credentials for public service, business success and transportation expertise, as well as being a decorated Vietnam veteran and retired Army Reserve Brigadier General, makes an opponent who many Sound Transit believers will find it uncomfortable to attack.

"If we are committed for 25 years and a good idea like autonomous van pools takes shape, good luck since the bond attorneys have made sure the money can't be diverted," Collins told me. "And autonomous van pools would be a good idea and could also be an energy answer."

Freeman sought this year to boost his years-long campaign for roads over rails with report he funded called Mobility 21 that outlined a fact-based alternative to the existing long-range plans. He has presented Mobility 21 at an array of speaking engagements around the region. 
Freeman told me the first presentation on the Mobility 21 study was made to officials of the Puget Sound Regional Council, which oversees dispensing federal dollars to the four counties.

"They admitted to us that the idea of autonomous cars had never been envisioned in their 25-year plan," freeman said.

Will autonomous vehicles become an ubiquitous presence on the region's roadways soon? Of course not. But technological advancements, including accident-avoidance devices, in vehicles before that happens will enhance congestion-reductions efforts. And some such technological advances could require commitment of dollars from the public, which would be more difficult to draw out if $54 billion in taxes is still being imposed.

And it's interesting that Daimler Trucks North America CEO Martin Daum talked recently about how he allowed a robotic truck to drive him nearly 25 miles, without his ever touching the steering wheel or brakes. He said his digital pilot used a combination of GPS, map data and sensors to drive the autonomous truck across highways and two-way streets.

And Freeman admitted to me, in one interview, that he has taken a half dozen trips, logging up to 125 miles, both freeway and city streets, with his autonomous Tesla. He said his hands were poised beneath the steering wheel in case his intervention was needed, bur that he never actually had his hands on the wheel.

Freeman and other ST-3 opponents haven't yet been seeking slogans for the final months of their campaign, but given the new realities facing the $54 billion plan, it could be referred at this time as "not a sound plan."
 
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