Transit Plan Derailed -- Pierce, Snohomish County Voters Say No To $6.7 Billion Proposal

Opponents of the $6.7 billion proposal to build a rail system in the Puget Sound region say rejection of the plan at the polls means it's time to think small.

Supporters of the Regional Transit Authority's proposal said they'd like to try again to pass a mass-transit plan. Trouble is, they aren't sure they can come up with a plan small enough to spare taxpayers' pocketbooks but big enough to satisfy their desires.

The plan was defeated yesterday with a combined vote in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties of 53 percent against and 47 percent for.

To pass, it needed a simple majority favoring the plan in the three counties.

While approved in King County with a 51 percent yes vote, the plan to establish new commuter rail, light rail and expanded bus service was defeated handily in Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Of the absentee ballots counted last night, 58 percent were running against the RTA plan. The remaining ballots will not be counted until Monday but are not expected to change the election results.

Greg Nickels, a Metropolitan King County Council member and key rail supporter, said he isn't sure the RTA board can sweeten the pot enough to satisfy Pierce and Snohomish counties while keeping the total cost of the system low enough for the remainder of voters.

Kemper Freeman Jr., an Eastside developer and the most visible opponent of the proposal, said he hoped the RTA would not come back right away with a stripped-down plan.

"The dumbest thing to do would be to do a little tinkering," agreed Steve Excell, who managed the opposition campaign.

Excell said the region should first try transportation alternatives that cost the least, such as completing car-pool lanes and adding bus service, before investing in expensive rail systems.

"We need to get to work on a balanced transportation system that will be of greater benefit to the people of the three counties than just this transit solution," Freeman said.

"The onus is now on us to come up with an alternative," said Excell.

And that was to begin as early as today. Caroline Robertson, head of the Bellevue Downtown Association and another key opponent, said her group would begin to define a balanced transportation plan.

"We are looking for increased mobility throughout the region and not just into Seattle," Robertson said. "A lot of us felt left out of the solution. Rail was the predetermined answer. I hope they go back and rethink things before they go back to the voters again."

Some people who worked on the RTA measure felt there were problems with the campaign itself, said Lois Anderson, manager of the state Department of Transportation office that works on high-capacity transit projects.

Anderson, who briefed the state Transportation Commission this morning, said people called to volunteer for the campaign but were never called back, and the proposal was not as visible as it could have been. "People (at the RTA campaign party) last night said they thought that was the first time they saw any yard signs."

Anderson said the campaign didn't focus on local concerns well enough, and there were no grass-roots groups pushing for the plan in Pierce or Snohomish counties. And then there was the cost: "$6.7 billion, $6.7 billion, $6.7 billion, that's all people heard," she said.

Surveys and even an advisory vote in 1988 have steadily indicated voters favor a rail system. But a survey conducted for The Seattle Times over the weekend indicated large numbers of voters still were undecided about the issue.

Their dilemma continued to be whether the cost of the system justified its performance.

Said Stuart Elway, who conducted the poll, "It's been the same for six years, congestion vs. cost, and people haven't really resolved that."

Ironically, the vote in King County was almost identical to that on a 1968 bond issue that would have financed a rail system connecting Seattle and Bellevue.

But that measure, a package of civic improvements known as Forward Thrust, failed because it was based on property taxes and required a 60 percent majority. It failed again in 1970, the last time it was on the ballot.

Yesterday's measure would have raised sales and motor-vehicle taxes to pay for the bulk of the system, with contributions expected from the state and federal governments.

This was the first time the vote had been held in the three-county region, however.

With nearly 400,000 ballots cast, voter turnout was about 30 percent of those registered. Supporters said they would have to look at an analysis of the vote, precinct by precinct, before deciding their next step.

"Is it too big? Is it too little? Is it the wrong mix?" asked Nickels, the King County councilman. "The balance was delicate. Trying to reformulate it would be a very difficult proposition."

But Bruce Laing, another county councilman and chairman of the RTA board, strongly favors another try at the polls.

"The only thing that would keep it from going to a vote in the fall or sometime after that was if the reading was such that there was no way we could make it pass in all three counties," Laing said. "We really need to analyze it based on individual precincts."

Laing said the RTA might consider changing the boundaries of the transit district, which now includes most of the urban areas of the three counties.

He said the board could decide to exclude some areas where the plan was unpopular.

But Aubrey Davis, chairman of the state transportation commission, said the board might want to consider seeking a change in the state law to allow a vote in King County only.

However, King County executive Gary Locke, who heads the only county to approve the measure, said, "I want a regional system. Just building it in King County is not the way to go."

Locke called the defeated plan a balance of interests in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

But Jim Kneeland, who organized the pro-RTA campaign, complained, "We live in an era where it is so easy to say no."

Kneeland said the people of the region just may not be ready to act, despite the apparent popularity of transit when they are asked about it.

"We had to wait for the tiles to fall off the Kingdome roof before we fixed it," he said. "A couple of people get shot in the courthouse before we put in metal detectors. We wait for disasters to occur."

Tom Matoff, executive director of the RTA, said his staff of planners and engineers will have to await guidance from the RTA board, but they are likely to come up with different versions of transit plans for the board to consider.

"There is no way to do it for a small amount of money," he said.

So far, said Paul Matsuoka, the agency's assistant director, "all the thinking has been about what we do after we win. We have not thought the other way."