TONS OF CANDIDATES want to shove light rail off the track.
"WTO, Mardi Gras, and Boeing's move have shaken us, but the failure of leadership on Sound Transit's light rail project may be the most breathtaking debacle of all," reads City Attorney Mark Sidran's first newspaper ad in his bid for mayor. He also launched TV ads and a transportation plan with the same theme last week. Of course both of Sidran's major opponents, King County Council member Greg Nickels and Mayor Paul Schell, are on Sound Transit's 18-member board. Since 17 members of the board are elected officials who are appointed to Sound Transit's guiding body by other elected officials, the only chance to hold these guys accountable is during their election to office as mayor, county executive, or whatever.
That's what a host of challengers are trying to do. Santos Contreras, running against King County Executive Ron Sims (another Sound Transit board member), says it's time to put light rail on hold. Ditto for Grant Cogswell, who is gunning to unseat Seattle City Council member Richard McIver (yep, he's on the board too). Meanwhile challengers in other races are using incumbents' support for light rail to fuel their campaigns: Michael Preston in his race against City Council member Richard Conlin, Mark Wheeler in his battle against County Council member Dwight Pelz, and Curt Firestone in his contest with City Council member Jan Drago.
It's easy to see why this runaway train has these candidates concerned. The last year has seen one crisis after another with light rail: First the train had funding problems with the federal government; next it was revealed that the cost of the project had ballooned to $4.1 billion, a billion over budget; then the completion date was pushed out three years; and, finally, the staff admitted that the train line, as originally conceived from the U District to Sea-Tac, could not be built with the money available.
Are the challengers getting any traction with this issue?
While we really won't know until Election Day, I don't think they are, for several reasons. First, with the exception of Cogswell, one of the original monorail madmen, and Firestone, who was critical of Sound Transit in his last run for office, none of these candidates are identified with the major organizations—Sane Transit (transportation wonks opposed to light rail, period), Save Our Valley (Rainier Valley neighborhood activists who want to do it in a tunnel), and a number of groups for monorail maniacs—fighting light rail. This creates the impression these candidates are Johnny-come-latelies. Secondly, none of these guys, again excepting Cogswell, are transportation wonks, so they sound like they've all read the same Sane Transit briefing papers (all together now: bus rapid transit, finish the HOV lanes from Everett to Tacoma, explore monorail technology, and don't let light rail take over the bus tunnel).
But these candidates face a more fundamental problem: Seattle voters have been disinclined to punish our elected officials over single issues. Take the baseball stadium, for instance. The raucous and impassioned public outcry over the state Legislature overriding King County's voters' rejection of public funding for a new $500 million Mariners stadium makes the protestations over Sound Transit sound like the mewling of a newborn kitten. Yet not a single officeholder lost an election or even had a good scare because of the stadium. Even Pat Davis, the woman who brought you WTO, is expected to easily win re-election to her seat on the Port Commission.
All the Sound Transit-loving incumbents facing challengers, with the exception of Schell, who has a whole flock of albatrosses around his neck, will most likely win with 60 percent of the vote or more. Unfortunately incumbents will interpret their victories as votes of confidence in many things, including Sound Transit.
LAWSUITS "R" US
Everybody has heard about lawsuit-happy Sidran suing the city during this campaign. It makes you wonder what Sidran would do if elected mayor and faced with a balky City Council: "Pass this law or I'll sue you!"?
But Sidran isn't the only candidate suing the entity he's running to control. Patrinell "Pat" Wright, the leader of the Total Experience Gospel Choir, is running for school board and claims she is suing the school district.
Wright, a charismatic candidate who is fast with a quip, is raising two grandsons. One attends Leschi School and there was "an incident" that has caused Wright considerable anguish. She refuses to go into details "because it's in litigation." We can't find the lawsuit at the courthouse yet, but the trouble has led Wright to support the presence of Coke machines in the schools. "When I have had to jump down some administrator's throat, I needed a Coke to keep me cool," she explains.