Transportation package: What will voters support?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Since summer, representatives of the region's corporate power hitters — Boeing, Microsoft, Vulcan — have been huddling regularly with labor, environmental and political leaders on the top floor of the King County Courthouse, trying to cut a deal.
The subject: a regional transportation package, tentatively slated to go to voters a year from now. But this high-powered group isn't negotiating what should and shouldn't be included in the plan.
Instead, it's designing a poll. Debating questions. Parsing words. Forging a tool to find out just what voters — tired of traffic, but wary of taxes — might support.
Participants hope to reach agreement at their fifth meeting this afternoon. If they do, the survey could be in the field soon after Tuesday's election.
It could have a big influence on a package that, for now, shapes up as the largest tax measure in the region's history.
Politicians usually take offense at the notion that they read polls before they write policy. Not so here.
"It (the poll) should give us substantial information to answer some of the questions we're having trouble answering right now," says Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, who suggested the privately financed survey and recruited the group that is drafting it.
Patterson is an alternate member of the board of the three-county Regional Transportation Investment District, created by the Legislature 18 months ago to craft a plan for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
The board's task hasn't been easy. It has split over several issues, especially whether to include money to extend light rail in Seattle. Most board members oppose it.
Their timetable called for adoption of a draft plan this month. But the October board meeting was canceled, and then the November session was, too.
Now a decision is slated for Dec. 11 — presumably after the poll results are in.
Board members say the board meetings were canceled because of scheduling conflicts. "But it may, frankly, help to have canceled them," says board member and Snohomish County Councilman Dave Gossett, D-Mountlake Terrace.
Business and labor leaders are investing time and dollars in the poll because they will be asked to bankroll next fall's campaign, and some aren't ready to sign on yet.
They say they want to put their money behind a package voters will support.
"We're not interested in doing another Referendum 51," says Washington State Labor Council president Rick Bender, alluding to the proposed statewide gas-tax increase that voters overwhelmingly rejected last year.
Some also hope the poll will reveal a path to compromise. Without it, they fear, no package can pass. Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce President Steve Leahy states that concern bluntly: "If there's divided opinion among the usual transportation supporters," he says, "this thing is toast."
Patterson doesn't want anyone to say the poll is slanted. She has recruited pollsters from both sides of the aisle — Democrat Don McDonough and Republican Bob Moore — to write and administer the survey.
They have circulated draft questionnaires that seek answers for the big questions the regional district now faces:
• Would including money in the regional package to extend Sound Transit's planned Seattle light-rail line help or hurt at the polls?
• What mix of roads and transit would voters favor?
• Is the $14 billion plan the board majority now envisions too expensive?
• Which taxes are voters most and least willing to pay?
Some public-opinion research already has been done this fall on those issues. Some say it suggests the regional district board should change course.
In late September the state Department of Transportation commissioned 10 "focus groups" — guided discussions involving small groups of randomly selected voters. The Seattle-based Discovery Institute paid for six more earlier this month.
Cocker Fennessy, the Seattle public-affairs firm that set up and led the department's focus groups, published a report on them two weeks ago. There's no written report yet on the Discovery Institute's sessions, but several sources familiar with them say the results are similar.
They raise at least two potential red flags for the regional district board.
First, the Cocker Fennessy report says, "most participants did not favor raising the sales tax to fund transportation projects," supporting gas and motor-vehicle taxes instead. That's a problem for the regional board because the sales tax is the principal revenue source the Legislature has given it.
The board's tentative revenue package calls for a 0.4 percentage-point sales-tax increase. A gas tax of 20 cents a gallon or more would be needed to raise that much money — and the regional district's authorizing legislation limits any local gas tax to just 2.8 cents.
Second, according to Cocker Fennessy, most of its groups wanted at least half of the regional package dedicated to transit. That's much more than transit gets in the preliminary project lists the board is considering.
Roads, transit or both?
The Legislature intended from the start that the regional package focus mostly on roads — backers say that's only fair, since the region already has committed at least $3.9 billion to Sound Transit's bus and rail plans. The regional district's authorizing legislation specifically prohibits it from spending money on light rail.
Focus-group participants couldn't agree on what kind of transit they want — buses, rail or monorail. But the results demonstrate that "the package has got to show a balanced system of improvements," says state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald. "It can't be perceived as a roads package or a transit package."
Not everyone accepts the focus-group results. Snohomish County Councilman Gary Nelson, R-Edmonds, the regional board chairman, says they don't ring true to him — "It wasn't the guy out of the tavern."
Issaquah developer Skip Rowley, part of the group drafting Patterson's poll, questions the focus groups' objectivity, noting that Cocker Fennessy has done extensive consulting work for Sound Transit.
But Peter Hurley of the pro-transit Transportation Choices Coalition says the results provide "clear and compelling evidence that the public wants a different set of investments" than the regional district is contemplating.
If the poll uncovers similar sentiments, he says, more groups may join his in trying to persuade the Legislature to change Senate Bill 6140, the regional district's authorizing legislation, next year.
Patterson says she's open to that. So is the labor council's Bender.
But state Sen. Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island, who chairs the Senate transportation committee, has said repeatedly that he won't consider changes. Some business leaders say they're more inclined to explore the possibility of a compromise within the confines of the existing law.
"I don't pick up a lot of interest among the business community in going down to the Legislature and trying to get Jim Horn to change 6140," says Bruce Agnew of the Discovery Institute, "but the polls could help drive the deal, to some degree."
People may be expecting too much of the poll, says Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, another regional board member. It will be subject to competing interpretations, he predicts, and some of the results may seem contradictory.
"There are elected officials and people in the business community who are looking for a crystal ball," McKenna says. "I think it will be cloudy. ...
"I think we'll find people want improvements, but they don't want to pay for them."
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231
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