The effort to create a “directly elected” Sound Transit Board of Directors is making the rounds in state legislative halls again this session. Last week, three Republicans and two Democrats introduced Senate Bill 5220 to do just that. The chief sponsor of the bill is Steve O’Ban (R-Tacoma), a regular critic of Sound Transit who has dreamed up dozens of bills over the past few years to defund voter-approved projects and create agency chaos.
Senator O’Ban’s bill would transform the transit agency’s governing board from an appointed 18-member body to one with 11 members elected by district every four years, beginning in 2020. The current governing structure provides for a county executive each from King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties, the Washington State Transportation Secretary, and appointed mayors and councilmembers from cities and counties in the Sound Transit service area.
For years, opponents of Sound Transit have claimed the agency is too large, undemocratic, and unresponsive to the needs of constituents. Yet in reality, the transit agency regularly goes above and beyond to please local governments, communities, and riders in its system and service planning. The transit agency has also made significant strides in modernizing its services and investments based on community feedback. And though Sound Transit got off to a rocky start in its early days, the transit agency has been a good steward of public funds and project delivery, all things considered.
That is why the latest bill by Senator O’Ban is surprising, which touts Democratic co-sponsors who serve communities in the Sound Transit service area. Senator Guy Palumbo (D-Maltby), who postures himself as a supporter of transit, is one of those Democratic co-sponsors.
State Senator argues for directly elected board
“I support the bill not because I think the Sound Transit boardmembers are bad people. I know many of them, and they are wonderful public servants. This is simply a matter of good governance in my opinion,” Senator Palumbo said. “I believe it’s important that any entity that manages $54 billion in taxing authority should be directly elected and accountable to the people. Additionally, if we had district elections when Sound Transit 3 passed, maybe we wouldn’t be spending money on a rail line to Issaquah (where they are cutting a bus line due to low ridership) rather than investing in a fully functioning and integrated I-405 BRT or rail from Lynnwood to Renton.”
That bus line Senator Palumbo is referring to is Sound Transit’s Route 555, which will be cut back to just serve the stretch from Northgate to Bellevue. The service cutback is projected to only affect about 175 daily weekday riders since the corridor has ample competing routes–including Routes 214, 216, 218, 219, 271, and 554–that have much higher ridership and some of which will get extra trips soon. Sound Transit is trying to focus on more core regional express routes needing investments, leaving this segment largely to King County Metro to manage for now. In other words, Senator Palumbo’s claim does not hold water.
And while light rail along the full I-405 corridor may have its own merits, Senator Palumbo has a vested interest in it. He serves communities along the corridor like Bothell and Kirkland. Diverting more investments into one’s district is always a political priority for politicians regardless of circumstances. Sound Transit 2 and 3, however, will deliver light rail to several communities along the I-405 corridor, including South Kirkland–just not in Senator Palumbo’s neck of the woods.
Perhaps ironically, his bill to remove tolling on I-405 would diminish the quality of bus rapid transit that Sound Transit is planning for the corridor. Eliminating tolls would mean that the state transportation department would lose necessary funding to complete complementary highway improvements.
Why bother changing what has been working well?
Geoff Patrick, a Sound Transit spokesperson, explained why the bill would undermine his agency’s current governing structure and organizational operations:
The current Sound Transit Board consists of 17 locally-elected members who are accountable to voters in addition to the Washington State Secretary of Transportation. By eliminating the requirement of being locally-elected as county executives, mayors, and councilmembers from the counties and cities of the jurisdictions where Sound Transit is planning and building projects, the agency would no longer benefit from this local government participation.
Such a change could undermine Sound Transit’s ability to reach permitting and partnership agreements with local municipalities, resulting in longer implementation periods and higher costs for system expansion projects. It also erodes the incentive for the agency to seek mutually-beneficial agreements with municipalities in order to preserve cooperative working relationships.
In addition, current requirements for Sound Transit Board membership ensure that 50% of boardmembers from each county also serve on local transit boards. Eliminating this requirement would diminish transit integration and result in lost opportunities and unnecessary duplication of services and costs.
Finally, such a governance model would undoubtedly attract narrow special interests, including to fund boardmember elections. Transit investments intended to benefit the region could be co-opted to special interests such as private developers as well as to pro- and anti-transit activists serving on the Board.
Local elected officials strongly echoed Mr. Patrick’s arguments.
“The Sound Transit Board–a federated board of elected officials from around the region–has served the agency well for many decades. The Boardmembers bring unique perspectives from around the region, including from various elected positions, and a diversity of opinions,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine. “They provide strong oversight and accountability to the agency. They are also held accountable to the voters of their communities who make their voices heard every four years. A directly elected board adds another ’boutique’ government, which is not something I believe we need.”
“I might take the idea more seriously if the [bill] sponsors had taken part in any efforts to build the transit system we have so desperately needed for decades in the Central Puget Sound region,” said King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci. “As it is, this proposal, like previous similar efforts, looks like yet another attempt to stop the completion of our light rail system.”
Both Executive Constantine and Councilmember Balducci currently serve on the Sound Transit Board.
Transit advocates like Seattle Subway also think the directly elected board proposal is an unwise idea. “The call for an elected board is sold as a way to bring accountability, but most of the bill’s sponsors oppose transit and support cutting voter-approved Sound Transit 3 funding,” said Ken Anderson, Political Director of Seattle Subway. “This is actually a thinly disguised attempt to disrupt Sound Transit by packing the board with anti-transit members.”
A directly elected board would be a hot mess
While creating a directly elected board may sound like an appealing choice to people who like small government, the Sound Transit Board is already composed of members who are directly elected in their communities, with the sole exception of the Washington State Transportation Secretary. This is similar to the governing structure of other transit agencies all across the state, which provides for strong oversight, responsiveness, and expertise on transit, land use, and local issues. This approach to governance has worked well across the state for decades.
Sound Transit by its nature is not a partisan body; it is collaborative and community-focused by design. A directly elected board, however, seems guaranteed to be combative, politicized, and ego-driven.
Consider Senator Palumbo’s own legislative chamber. For years, the Washington State Senate has been one of chaos–a hot mess you might say–where extremists on the right side of the aisle brought state government to the brink of shutdown in 2017 (and 2015 and 2013). The latest episode ended with Senate Republicans getting their way on how to pay for schools under the McCleary Decision, largely saddling Puget Sound residents to foot their property tax bill. Senate Republicans also held up the issuance of capital bonds last year for billions of dollars in necessary construction of schools, hospitals, and low-income housing just because they disagreed over how to address permit-exempt wells stemming from the Hirst Decision. And then there was the time that Senate Republicans refused to pass a transportation package in 2015 without pilfering $500 million from Sound Transit taxpayers and preempting a statewide clean fuels standard.
Is this the kind of governance that Senator Palumbo and his colleagues want to bring to Sound Transit?
A directly elected board will not create a more equitable, functional, and representative structure, as others have argued. Instead, it only serves to create chaos in a time when Sound Transit needs a steady hand to build out 116 miles of light rail, launch 49 miles of bus rapid transit, and improve other transit services for communities throughout the region. Risking a slowdown or stalling of project delivery will have a direct impact on maintaining traffic misery, lack of mobility options, and increasing carbon emissions. If Senators Palumbo, O’Ban, and their colleagues want to advance the cause of transit, perhaps they should instead focus on providing state funding to speed up project delivery rather than hold the agency hostage for their pet projects.