End of the Green Line

And let the Viaduct planning begin. Meanwhile, no one you've never heard of won.

On election night, Nov. 8, there finally was movement on transportation in Washington—ironically in defeat. Seattle voters wised up and rejected an unworkable monorail plan, and statewide ballots appeared to favor keeping $5.5 billion worth of gas taxes for highways. In two other big statewide initiative battles, over medical malpractice, voters rejected a proposal supported by doctors and another proffered by lawyers. And in Seattle and King County races for elected office, incumbents and familiar names romped—a marked difference from the anti-incumbent mood of four years ago.

The biggest surprise of the night was the apparent defeat of Initiative 912, which would have repealed $5.5 billion worth of new gas taxes for projects around the state—including replacement of Seattle's crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct freeway and the Highway 520 floating bridge between Seattle and Bellevue. The measure was failing late Tuesday 52 percent to 47 percent, with many votes yet to be counted in King County, where the measure was being trounced.

In July, I-912 seemed unstoppable as a couple of conservative talk-radio guys lit a populist prairie fire of anti-tax sentiment that produced more than 400,000 signatures in 30 days. The No-on-I-912 campaign started late but raised around $3 million and employed a regional strategy, educating voters about projects in their cities and counties that would have been stopped had the measure passed. Hurricane Katrina illustrated to voters the folly of putting off investment in infrastructure like the viaduct and 520, which are near the end of utility. "It was about safety," said state House Transportation Chair Ed Murray, D-Seattle, one of the chief architects of the gas-tax plan passed earlier this year. Murray said if I-912 indeed fails, it will signal a shift in political climate. "It will be one of the big political earthquakes of the last fifteen years," said Murray. He thinks the broad coalition opposing the measure— environmentalists, road builders, business, and labor—was key to stopping I-912.

While the new gas tax was defended by a broad statewide coalition, Seattle voters finally shunned their monorail project. In a fifth vote on the project since 1997, elevated transit lost for the first time, 64 percent to 35 percent. The monorail had become a symbol of everything that can go wrong with a major transit project. An $11 billion financing plan unveiled last summer was D.O.A., and scrutiny of long-awaited details found that the board overseeing the project had failed in oversight. This fifth vote would have approved a shorter, cheaper but far-less-useful Green Line, as the Ballard-to-West Seattle monorail was to be called. But Mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle City Council had withdrawn political and statutory support, and voters saw the light, too. Now the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority must dissolve itself, pay off tens of millions of dollars in debt, and sell real estate it has acquired—a process that could take years and require ongoing collection of tens of millions more in vehicle-excise taxes. In the end, Seattle will have spent millions for nothing. Murray has a plan, though. He wants the state to assume the monorail debt and assets and clear the books in nine and a half months. That would allow a regional plan for mass transit and road improvements to make progress, he said. "We won't be able to move forward with a regional plan as long as Seattle voters are paying for nothing."

Seattle and King County voters apparently are satisfied, meanwhile, that they are getting good value from their local elected officials. A familiar group of leaders has the task of figuring out next steps in improving area transportation. Democratic King County Executive Ron Sims easily defeated Republican King County Council member David Irons, despite pre-election polls showing a tight race. Incumbents on the King County Council and Seattle City Council handily bested their opponents.

While voters liked their incumbents, they didn't go for proposed medical malpractice and tort reform. Initiative 330, which would have put a cap on jury awards for non-economic damages, was done in because all of the state's big urban counties voted decisively against it. I-330 also would have limited lawyers' fees on the plaintiff side and allowed doctors to deny service to patients who refused to sign away their right to sue. Its defeat wasn't for lack of money. The campaign, supported largely by doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies, raised an unprecedented $9 million. The opposition, backed largely by lawyers, raised a ton of money, too—$6.7 million. Doctors also engaged in the questionable practice of campaigning for I-330 by talking to their patients, with some displaying campaign literature in their offices.

Tom Curry, an I-330 spokesperson and executive director of the Washington State Medical Association, said that he and his allies would continue "to move ahead in whatever way we can." He's not sanguine, however, about the prospect of tort reform in the Legislature, which has declined so far to pass jury-award caps and other measures.

In contrast, Dylan Malone, spokesperson for Initiative 336, which would have imposed a three-strikes rule of sorts to decertify bad doctors, expressed great optimism for the proposals in that initiative—despite its failure at the polls. "We've won already," he said. "There's been a sea change, just a complete transformation" in dialogue around the issue. "A year ago, I'd go to Olympia and I couldn't get committee chairs to take my meetings. It was a fringe issue." No longer. Even newspaper editorial boards conceded the need to do something about patient safety, even if almost none ended up supporting I-336. And legislators are asking Malone to weigh in. "I have a real sense the iron is hot."

School board races attract far less attention and money, but this year's election was vital for the Seattle Public Schools, which are burdened by shrinking revenue, growing expenses, and consequent morale problems. As in city and county races, name recognition and incumbency appeared to win the day. In District 5, incumbent Mary Bass was leading opponent Jane Fellner by more than 5 percentage points, while in District 7, an open seat, former City Council member Cheryl Chow was trouncing Linda Thompson-Black. Although a relative unknown, Michael DeBell was handily winning in District 1, where his opposition was college student Astrid Gielen.

"Mary's early reputation certainly had been [that of] someone who stands against the district, and so maybe she wasn't included in the broad brush of disappointment people have felt," said Fellner. Incumbent Bass earned loyalty when she was the sole board member to vote against what turned out to be a problematic budget prepared by former Superintendent Joseph Olchefske. Bass has continued to vote no—often—something Fellner criticized. But Bass also has deep support in the African-American community. "I'm ready for another four," she said by phone from her election night party.

Linda Thompson-Black, who once worked for former Mayor Norm Rice and whose mother and brother run the landmark soul food restaurant Thompson's Point of View, also has roots in the African-American community and is politically connected. But she proved no match for Chow, a political veteran who also is a former Seattle teacher and principal.

Thompson-Black, Fellner, and DeBell all were backed by an unusual political action committee that was formed to influence these School Board races. The PAC, called Strong Seattle Schools and supported by several technology executives, among others, raised $60,000 for the three candidates and sent out glossy mailers. But in the two pivotal, heavily contested races, money wasn't enough.

 
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