Why Sims turned against "Roads & Transit"
Seattle Times staff reporters
Opponents: King County Executive Ron Sims; Eastside developer Kemper Freeman; Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club; Cascade Bicycle Club
Builds new highway and street lanes. Highlights include widening Interstate 405 and Highway 9; extending Highway 509 in SeaTac; improvements to Mercer, Lander and Spokane streets in Seattle, and partial funding for a new Highway 520 floating bridge.
Extends Sound Transit light rail to Lynnwood, Overlake and Tacoma.
Collects new taxes Sales taxes would increase 6 cents per $10 purchase, for a total $150 annually for the average household. Car-tab taxes would increase by $80 a year per $10,000 of vehicle value.
Last week, King County Executive Ron Sims said he was neutral on Proposition 1, the biggest local spending measure in state history.
But then someone questioned his political moxie.
His wife, Cayan, told him he should air his simmering belief that the measure, known as "Roads & Transit," would neither reduce congestion nor show leadership on climate change.
"She thought if I was pulling back, I wasn't fulfilling my obligation as a public official," he said.
So Sims — for years one of the region's strongest advocates of transit — began writing an essay that mowed down the $18 billion package, even though it offers 50 miles of Sound Transit light-rail lines to go along with miles of highway and street lanes.
The op-ed, which appeared Thursday in The Seattle Times, has some analysts predicting Sims' position could hurt the Nov. 6 ballot measure.
Sims wrote: "While containing some good projects, this plan doesn't solve traffic congestion in the short term, nor does it provide enough long-term relief to justify the financial and environmental costs. Tragically, this plan continues the national policy of ignoring our impacts upon global warming."
It was a remarkable statement from someone who declared four years ago, while chairman of Sound Transit, "We're going to dig and dig and dig and dig until the light-rail project gets to Bellevue, gets to Everett, gets to Tacoma."
The op-ed, appearing less than six weeks before the election in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, repudiates a road package five years in the making, and a transit plan crafted over three years. Sims argues that suburban rail lines would take too long to build, and that the roads plan fails to include widespread tolling as a way to reduce traffic.
Sims now stands alongside the Sierra Club and the Cascade Bicycle Club, but against numerous labor, business and environmental groups that endorse Proposition 1.
The official $18 billion figure, funded by sales and car-tab taxes, would reach $38 billion when inflation, operating costs and overhead are included by the time projects finished in 2027.
Transit-board member Julia Patterson of SeaTac, a leading backer of both the road and rail projects, said Sims' comments are an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.
"If not this, Ron, then what? If not now, Ron, then when?" said Patterson, a County Council member. "People can nip at this thing from a whole lot of angles, but the opposition is meaningless if they don't have a better solution."
Support for Proposition 1 has eroded some, said Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, whose survey in early September indicates a small majority of voters favor the measure.
"For a lot of people, it doesn't take much to tip them to 'no' on a tax vote," Elway said. "If he [Sims] says 'no' to this, I think it will carry some weight."
Christian Sinderman, a political consultant not involved with either side of the campaign, said: "There's such disproportionate resources on the 'yes' side — and we haven't yet begun to see it — that I don't think anyone should hit any panic buttons." The yes campaign has raised about $1.4 million so far.
House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, believes Sims' view will have some effect, "but I can't tell whether it's a major impact, or just sort of part of the fray," she said.
Aaron Toso, spokesman for Yesonroadsandtransit.org, stressed that supporters include a broad coalition of business, labor and environmental groups, and political leaders including Gov. Christine Gregoire. Sims is "not with the bulk of the leadership in the region," Toso said. (Opponents' Web site is NoToProp1.org)
However, support by some lawmakers seems lukewarm. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, wouldn't stake out a firm position on Thursday. "I don't know what to say," he said. "What are you asking me for? It's a local decision." When pressed, Chopp said, "I'm definitely not opposed to it." However, he would not go so far as saying he supports the measure. "Let me give it some thought," he said.
In an interview, Sims said light rail should be limited to densely populated corridors, such as the University District to Northgate. The measure's promise of a line through southwest King County is too expensive for the expected ridership, he said.
Also, he said he now factors in the carbon emissions and road congestion that accompany construction.
Sims predicted the 20-year plan will require a "three-generation tax" over 50 years. Costs will be higher than estimated, he said, due to the strain that China's economic growth and worldwide urbanization will place on supplies of materials.
Steve Mullin, president of Washington Roundtable, a group of business executives that has supported transportation investments, said a combination of roads and transit is needed to win approval from what he calls "the great middle" of voters.
If Proposition 1 fails, he predicts that a new plan would take five, six or seven years to emerge.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company