A skeptic’s argument against Sound Transit 3

Light rail departs from Mount Baker Link station. (Photo by Min Duc Nguyen)
Light rail departs from Mount Baker Link station. (Photo by Min Duc Nguyen)

If you haven’t voted on Sound Transit’s Proposition 1 yet, we need to talk.

Sound Transit’s Proposition 1, which raises $54 billion over 25 years for expansion of Link Light Rail and other projects, may be a bad or good idea, ultimately. But voting “yes” now is definitely a bad idea. There hasn’t been enough critical assessment upon which to decide whether the proposal is bad or good.

Voting “no” until such time comes — maybe one more year — as a robust public critical discussion has been conducted, is erring on the side of caution.

Voting “no” from the perspective of low-income people is even more compelling. Low-income households have little to gain but a lot to lose from Sound Transit 3.

I was a skeptic who has since turned a critic after an interview with former King County Councilwoman Maggie Fimia who grew up riding the subways and buses in Queens, New York. She has also worked for many years on transit transportation issues in the Seattle area, and advocated for the first Sound Transit light rail measure.

“Seattle, downtown Seattle is what [ST3] is all about,” Fimia said. “It’s sort of a big status project for Seattle. We are finally a ‘real’ city because we have rail. People have no idea what they are actually buying. This is light rail; it’s not heavy rail. We are all spread out. You can’t serve it by rail.”

Fimia said the way Sound Transit is appointed doesn’t allow for skeptics to get on the board.

The 18 board members are appointed, not elected, by the executives of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The King County executive gets to appoints ten of those. Then Sound Transit board, in turn appoints both the Citizen Oversight Panel and Expert Review panel.

“They get appointed because they are sympathetic to Sound Transit,” Fimia said. “They don’t ask hard questions. They don’t challenge Sound Transit,” Fimia said, “Most decisions are unanimous decisions.”

She added the contractors are powerful, intimidating to overseers all the way up to the state and the feds, and donating to campaigns.

Also, Sound Transit 3 will affect King County Metro Transit, which I favor. In my previous reporting, I’ve outlined service disparity among South, North, Seattle and East and mused on what should be done about it.

But unlike me, King County Executive Dow Constantine, who oversees Metro and Sound Transit, hasn’t seemed to have favored Metro buses in his decisions.

“He had over two dozen bus routes rerouted or cancelled so that the people have to ride the train when they opened up the Husky Stadium station,” Fimia said. “And that is the plan: to move people off the buses onto trains forcing them to transfer or lose their service or would have to walk blocks and blocks.”

She expects more of the same with an expansion of Link Light Rail.

“What will happen is the Express buses will go away once rail service goes in. So your one stop ride from Renton or Everett to Downtown Seattle is going to go away and you will have a 15-stop ride which is going to be much slower on light rail. So much better and faster bus and dedicated lanes is what needs to happen.”

I liked Constantine and would have hoped his office practice what it preaches: use Equity Impact Review (EIR) to do impact review for ST3, which I don’t think has happened in a formal manner.

I have perused the impact review document of ST3. I didn’t buy it because it only shows benefits and no drawbacks. Neither did Fimia, who didn’t have faith in the process of the impact review.

“There’s token amount and token language in the ST3 plan about affordable housing. That affordable housing is not really affordable once the stations go in,“ Fimia told me. “And you’ve just displaced all these people who are having to live further out.”

“Plus they are going to pay increased property taxes, increased sales tax, increased motor vehicle excise tax and if they’re renters, their rents are going to go up,” she said.

This sounds like gentrification, which has become elusive for Seattle to solve, even the best case scenario,  and maybe going regional this time around.

Why do a lot of people seem to support ST3,  again?

Big money means massive marketing and public relations. Sound Transit has spent $37 million since 2007 trying to convince the public Light Rail everywhere is the way to go .

ST3 Light Rail takes $32 billion of the $54 billion compared to only $2 billion for buses. There are 740 people for working for Sound Transit. Thirty-nine people work for Sound Transit just in communication and marketing.

These public expenditures don’t include the money raised for Transportation Choices Coalition, an arm of Mass Transit Now which supports Sound Transit 3, which received $3.5 million in funds for the campaign from companies and other entities that benefit from the Sound Transit 3 project.

Fimia doesn’t get paid by No ST3, which has raised $316,000, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

While it’s obvious that massive infrastructure investment will create good union jobs — which I sympathize with — it’s debatable if that is an end in itself if we don’t get much in the way of better transit.

So, the benefits are not very impressive to me, and the drawbacks have not been highlighted enough: ST3 jeopardizes school funding, according to the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. ST3 won’t reduce congestion according to Sound Transit’s own advocacy group, which is a far cry from the rosy ST3 campaign ads.

And there is no evidence that there will be a significant ridership increase, according to NoST3 campaign: “Sound Transit admits ST3 only creates 32K new riders. That’s less than 1% of all trips in 2040 and costs over $500K a rider!”

This mediocre goal is not due to lack of aspiration of on the part of Sound Transit, as I once thought.  According to Fimia, Sound Transit has business considerations in mind more than transit service for people who need it most.

“This is not about service, which is what gets people onto transit. It’s about capital investment which makes a lot of people a lot of money, including real estate developers who will be speculating around those proposed stations. Rent prices will go up. People will be forced out of their homes and they will have to move further out.“

However, when I raise questions about ST3 in my circles of friends and acquaintances, I often get asked if I have an alternative plan, which I think is an unfair question. Why not mass teleportation? Why can’t I just poke holes in the logic of the Seattle progressive collective, which sometimes functions as a social club?

While I don’t have ideas, I did ask Fimia — who has a Master’s Degree in Public Administration heavily focused on transit transportation issues, a former member of King County Council and the Puget Sound Regional Council Transportation Policy Board. She has several.

“The best alternative is ramping up the bus service and making it first class bus, rather than canceling buses or rerouting buses to serve the train,” Fimia said.

Now Fimia is working with NoST3 campaign, and Smarter Transit which evolved from Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives (CETA) — all three are volunteer groups she helped setup and organize. They advocate for revolutionary buses — neighborhood transit limos I would contend, which quite frankly is an aspiration I can get behind.

“And we need to have it be flexible because there’s also a transportation revolution coming here,” Fimia says. “Buses will be smaller and automated as they go deeper into the neighborhoods. You’ll be able call up for a bus that take you much closer to where you live than to light rail stations 2 to 3 miles away.”

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6 Comments

  1. Too bad your source for this story is a discredited self-serving ideologue who was booted out of office for serious ethical and legal lapses that ended up costing her suburban town millions in legal costs.

    Once local voters figured out Fimia was a Trump-like huckster (rather than the reformer she pretends to be) they showed her the door.

    Leaving all the disinformation in this one-sided article for somebody else to pick apart, I will give you a simple example of how terribly misinformed anybody who repeats Fimia’s distortions really is:

    Yes, for a very short period of time decades ago, she supported light rail. But since that time, her views were shaped by the low-density single family suburban, white suburbs she represented.

    Fimia pretended to support Bus Rapid Transit, yet when the state and cities were fighting local strip-mall businesses along SR 99 north, Fimia sided with the used car dealers, motels, auto parts stores and tattoo parlors who wished to keep 99 dangerous and auto-centric. All in the name of profit.

    Eventually, Fimia and her band of anti-BRT council members lost that fight. But that was mostly due to the fact her coalition imploded under a cloud of ethical and legal fights (easy to find online) which led to their ultimate downfall.

    All the while Fimia pretended to support bus rapid transit as a concept, she never once lifted a finger to get behind the two Metro campaigns that actually implemented and funded bus rapid transit. The same way Donald Trump “respects women” Maggie Fimia supports buses.

    And she’s been telling us technology would replace mass transit for a very long time. The only place her magic robo-shuttles might work: the wide, empty streets of her wealthy, white suburban Edmonds enclave. What happens to the magic bus when it gets to I-5? It won’t be long until Fimia and her ilk try to tell us the robo-shuttles will sprout wings. And fly.

    And long before Donald Trump claimed “the system is rigged” Maggie Fimia was out there as a public figure singing the same kind of conspiratorial insanity, always placing herself as the victim, fighting against dishonesty and corruption. Like Trump, she doesn’t need to look away from the mirror to find it.

  2. I’m not sure what “one stop” busses service Everett and Renton, but when there’s traffic there’s absolutely no scenario where they reach downtown Seattle faster than light rail. Also, the projection from ST3 is to add 600,000 daily rides, not 32k as NOST3 claims.
    It is true that bus routes are changed as a result of light rail. But that’s a positive; each new link station should be its own hub, because of the frequency of the trains and the redundancy of running busses along that same route through traffic.
    As a low-income soon-to-be-former Seattle resident, I wish I was going to get the benefits of ST3. It would have opened far wider the number of job opportunities I could easily reach (Reaching Tacoma from Lynnwood daily for work would not be out of the question.) I predict it will lose unfortunately, and like with previous attempts at a regional transit system we will need to wait at least five years for the next plan to appear. In that time, traffic will get even worse, taking more gas money and opportunity cost out of the pockets of struggling Northwesterners where they can least afford it. And we will have let down low-income Seattlites again.

  3. “And there is no evidence that there will be a significant ridership increase, according to NoST3 campaign: “Sound Transit admits ST3 only creates 32K new riders. That’s less than 1% of all trips in 2040 and costs over $500K a rider!””

    This is absurd, absolutely insane reasoning how can you publish this?

  4. I will be for this proposal if Seattle residents are told in simple words it costs an average citizen. Over $2 BIllions a year … It is not free … Show us value over cost. Don’t see blue sky.

  5. I’m disappointed to see the Seattle Globalist argue against ST3.

    As Maz says, the biggest problem with “first class bus” (sic) service is that its supporters only seem to care about it when someone else is proposing a bigger and better alternative.

    In 2014, King County Metro was facing a budget crunch. They proposed a ballot initiative, Proposition 1, which would raise enough money to maintain current service. Without it, Metro risked having to downsize dozens of bus routes, and eliminate many of them entirely. Also, 40% of the Prop 1 revenue would be earmarked for cities to maintain transportation infrastructure, including sidewalks.

    Right on the Smarter Transit home page, they say that “safe bikeways and walkways are needed in every community”, and “,aintaining our existing infrastructure should be a priority”. So given this, and given what Fimia says about King County Metro today, you would think that her organization would have supported that ballot measure, right? Well, let me quote from John Niles in 2014:

    “There are dozens of questions that could be asked about Metro’s plans for operations under fiscal restraint in the absence of the Prop 1 tax hike. I don’t see anybody asking them. The give-Metro-what-it-wants segment of the market seems only interested in joining Metro in amplifying the impact of the single plan of cutting 17%. Where is skepticism about management’s claims?”

    And elsewhere on that page:

    “A breathtaking Metro resource grab — $60 car tab hike for every one of 1.2 million private vehicles, plus a sales tax hike — is “justified” with unconscionable overstatement of threats to bus service –advertised with taxpayer-funded posters plastered all over the bus system. Voting “yes” on Prop 1 should not be easy for anyone who cares about sustainable transit economics.”

    The full text of both comments can be found here: http://www.sightline.org/2014/04/07/what-does-17-mean/

    John Niles leads SmarterTransit/CETA along with Maggie Fimia. The words I’ve quoted above are those of Niles, not Fimia. But don’t you think it’s odd that in 2014, CETA thought Metro had too much fat, but in 2016, CETA thinks Metro (but not Sound Transit!) should be substantially expanded?

    Time and time again, SmarterTransit/CETA has advocated for whatever transit solution is smaller and less expensive than the one currently being proposed. When light rail is on the ballot, they want BRT. When buses are on the ballot, they want to “trim the fat”. However much money we might spend on transit, they want to spend less. These are not the actions of people who truly want transit to succeed.

    ST3’s supporters include:

    – OneAmerica Votes: “Sound Transit 3 will be a huge win for immigrant and refugee communities in the Puget Sound Region!” (https://weareoneamerica.org/blog/jun-16/sound-transit-3-will-be-huge-win-immigrant-and-refugee-communities-puget-sound-region)

    – Puget Sound Sage (https://www.facebook.com/pugetsoundsage/posts/10154881338132240)

    – Real Change (http://www.realchangenews.org/2016/10/26/real-change-editorial-committee-endorsements)

    – Progreso WA (http://www.progresowa.org/2016_endorsements)

    along with many, many other organizations that are deeply committed to equity and social justice. They would not be supporting it if they thought that it would have adverse effects on marginalized communities. (The fact that many of these organizations oppose I-732 should demonstrate that they do not automatically support anything that sounds “progressive-y”.)

    Please feel free to contact me directly if you’d like to learn more about ST3. There’s a lot more to it than what you’ve heard from SmarterTransit/CETA.

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