It will be two years before the first new express buses run between suburbs and before the first commuter-rail trains link Seattle and Tacoma, but residents of the Puget Sound region may soon see some small transit improvements, thanks to their overwhelmingly pro-transit vote.
On the fourth try, voters agreed yesterday to build a mass-transit system. The landslide margin surprised even the staunchest proponent.
"I think we got it right," said Bob White, executive director of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which won approval for a $3.9 billion transit plan in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties.
Mass transit was voted down in 1968, 1970 and, most recently, March 1995, when a $6.7 billion plan was rejected.
This version, noted White, "is smaller, has a shorter time frame, and is more balanced, so that's what did it."
"Now we stop going to meetings and start building it," said Maggi Fimia, RTA board member and chairwoman of the King County Council's regional-transit committee.
The plan calls for electric light rail from Seattle's University District to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, diesel commuter trains on existing tracks connecting Tacoma, Seattle and Everett, and 20 new express-bus routes.
The system will take 10 years to build and will cost families $100 to $125 a year in increased sales taxes and vehicle-license fees.
A year ago, the proposal passed overwhelmingly in Seattle but was defeated in the outlying areas. This time, King County voted overwhelmingly in favor, Snohomish County narrowly favored it, and Pierce County narrowly was opposed.
Elected officials said that had the RTA proposal failed yesterday, there wouldn't have been another vote for quite a while.
"It was just absolutely critical," said Fimia. "We couldn't have gotten the rail segment any smaller, and if there was no rail, we would have lost thousands of voters in Seattle. I don't know what we would have done."
Edmonds City Councilman Dave Earling, another RTA board member, said that in recent weeks people began to understand "that this was their last shot for quite a while."
Brett Bader, campaign consultant to the RTA opponents, said some of the victory margin should be attributed to the heavy Democratic Party turnout. He noted that the opposition was outspent about 4-to-1.
But Bob Gogerty, the RTA's campaign guru, said the vote shows people will vote to tax themselves if the campaign is honest about its good and bad points.
White said he has told RTA staff members not to think of the plan as a 10-year project, but rather as a project of 120 months "because every month counts."
He said the first step will be for the RTA to sit down with transit agencies in the three counties and talk about how quickly express-bus service can be improved.
Although it will take two years for the RTA to procure new buses, White said the agencies might be able to beat that deadline in integrating their service and fare structures.
King County Metro is adding bus service in each of the next six years, so White predicted incremental improvements soon.
The commuter rail between Lakewood, Tacoma, the Kent Valley and Seattle is expected to be about two years away, and the service between Seattle, Edmonds and Everett three years away. Negotiations with the Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad over use of the tracks must take place first.
The first light-rail segment to be built will be the short line between downtown Tacoma and the Tacoma Dome. In Seattle, the first segment built will likely be from Seattle south, and is at least five or six years away.
Ironically, the first area to benefit from the RTA may be the Eastside, which also was the center of the opposition.
White noted that the RTA can now help finance needed interchanges on Interstate 405 in Bellevue and on Interstate 90 in Issaquah.
Rob McKenna, the King County Council member who became the RTA's most vocal critic, said the voters are saying, "Let's get on with it."
But McKenna said there are significant challenges ahead for the RTA, even with its funding approved.
He predicted land-use fights in Seattle's Rainier Valley, where the RTA plans to build light-rail on elevated tracks, and in South King County, where the light-rail route hasn't been finally determined. Currently, McKenna noted, the Port of Seattle wants to keep the light-rail trains three blocks from the airport parking garage and terminal. McKenna said the rail line will need to be closer than that to succeed.
--------------------- Regional-transit plan ---------------------
The plan combines commuter rail, electric light rail and express bus routes with more suburb-to-suburb connections.
Cost: $3.91 billion
Commuter rail: 81 miles, from Everett to Lakewood on existing tracks.
Electric light rail: 25 miles in two segments, one from the University District and running to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the other from the Tacoma Dome to Tacoma.
Regional express-bus routes: 20, many with direct-access ramps to more than 100 miles of HOV expressway lanes.