Voters Weren't Ready For Tax On Transit Plan -- Especially Since U. S. Helping Less

Maybe the reason Seattle is the only West Coast city without rapid transit under way is not the attitude of local voters but the changing role of the federal government.

Right now, federal transportation dollars are limited - unlike when other cities launched their systems.

Portland, San Diego and Sacramento first built mass-transit systems with a combination of readily available federal dollars (three-fourths of the cost) plus state aid. Only afterward did the voters agree to tax themselves to expand the systems.

Voters turned down an offer to tax themselves to begin a rail system here. The $6.7 billion plan they rejected called for the federal government to pay only a small share of the cost - and even that share was viewed by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) as difficult to get.

Tuesday's proposition carried narrowly in King County, which contains about 70 percent of the voters but was defeated strongly in Pierce and Snohomish counties, taking the measure to an overall 47 percent to 53 percent loss.

An analysis of Tuesday's votes shows that even in areas of King County other than Seattle, opposition to the transit plan was as strong as in Pierce and Snohomish counties.

While Seattle voted in favor with a 62 percent majority, the remainder of King County gave the rail proposal only a 41 percent yes vote. That was similar to Pierce County, which defeated the plan 40 percent to 60 percent. The Snohomish County vote was 36 percent yes and 64 percent no.

Bruce Laing, RTA chairman, said the next step for the RTA board will be to meet with members of the state's congressional delegation to ask them to preserve the area's hope of receiving federal funds.

However, the system that was voted down Tuesday asked the federal government to pay only about 20 percent - and even that wasn't assured. About $325 million had been earmarked for the Puget Sound system, but that money may be appropriated elsewhere because of Tuesday's defeat.

Laing said he would like the RTA to try again at the polls in the fall, but that any future proposal will require a better understanding of what voters had to say on Tuesday.

"The only way to (build) this is a Seattle-based system and leave out huge chunks of the Eastside," said Brett Bader of the Madison Group. Bader's organization, which runs campaigns for conservative Republicans, was in charge of the mail campaign against the proposal.

The most favorable votes occurred in two of Seattle's legislative districts: the 36th, which includes Queen Anne and Magnolia, and the 43rd, which includes North Capitol Hill, the University District and parts of downtown and Wallingford.

The 36th favored the RTA proposals with a 63.4 percent yes vote, the 43rd with 73.4 percent. Other areas of Seattle also were over 60 percent. The proposal also won a slim majority in Edmonds and Mercer Island, and in the legislative district that includes the new city of Shoreline.

Bader targeted a direct-mail campaign at the areas where the RTA was defeated - Pierce and Snohomish counties and the Eastside.

He said the perception in the suburban areas - a perception that was exploited by his group, Families Against Congestion and Taxes (FACT) - is that "if you're out in the bushes, you're paying, but you're not riding."

Tom Matoff, executive director of the RTA, said the election campaign failed to tell those voters how they would benefit from the system.

Although both the pro- and anti-RTA campaigns focused on the light-rail connections from Seattle to Tacoma, Bellevue and Lynnwood, and commuter rail between Tacoma and Everett, suburban voters thought the system cost too much for the benefit.

In large measure, they are not served well by transit, other than buses to and from downtown Seattle.

Matoff said the way to improve the bus service in the suburbs is to build a rail line so the buses now used to funnel commuters in and out of Seattle could be switched to other routes.

Matoff said increasing service just by buying more buses would work for a while but not for the long term because of expected population growth.

In fact, King County's Metro bus service plans a major increase in suburban service beginning next year, when a fleet of new buses arrives.

Throughout the campaign, RTA supporters said the opposition should step up and say what the alternative proposal should be.

But yesterday, Steve Excell, who ran the campaign against the rail proposal, said his group will not make any specific recommendations about what should come next.

Instead, said Excell, the group will write to the RTA board next week to outline "principles" for further discussions.

Excell said they will ask that any future transportation proposal include roads as well as transit, look at low-cost solutions first, and ensure that all the areas within the region get a fair share of spending in their area for the amount of taxes they contribute.

Excell and other opponents had argued that too much money was being spent in Seattle.

He said that while his group will not argue that rail transit should not be considered, "My sense is that it is the most expensive alternative, and I would be surprised if people jumped to the most expensive alternative first."