On September 17, 1993, the newly formed Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) board meets for the first time. The board consists of elected officials from King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties and Washington State Secretary of Transportation Sid Morrison (b. 1933). They discuss their hopes and ideas for planning a three-county bus, commuter-rail, and light-rail system, and hear from State Representative Ruth Fisher (1925-2005), a key player in creation of the RTA. Over the next quarter century, these first board members and their successors will preside over the growth of what in 1997 they will dub Sound Transit, developing a system of regional express buses; commuter trains between Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett; a light-rail line in Tacoma; and finally in 2009 -- considerably later than anyone at the first meeting likely imagines -- opening a light-rail line from Sea-Tac Airport to downtown Seattle, which will be extended in 2016 to the University of Washington.
Political Road Kill No More
After Seattle voters twice rejected building a rail transit system in 1968 and 1970, rail transit became a non-starter in the region. Nearly two decades later Greg Nickels (b. 1955), just elected to the King County Council in 1987, sought to make his mark. He was interested in mass transit and wanted it back on the table in the region. He and fellow council member Cynthia Sullivan (b. 1949) spearheaded an advisory ballot measure in 1988 asking county voters if they were interested in planning and funding a regional light-rail system. They said yes by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. In 2017, Nickels explained:
"The whole purpose of the advisory ballot in '88 was to change the politics ... We got a 70 percent yes vote so it was safe. It was no longer political road kill" (Cohen interview).
The measure helped pave the way for the state legislature to take up the issue. Representative Ruth Fisher from Pierce County was chair of the House Transportation Committee and championed light rail with the High Capacity Transit Act in 1990. The bill's passage gave King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties a path to creating a regional transit agency and the taxing authority necessary to build a transit system. The act required the formation of a Joint Regional Policy Committee (JRPC) to outline a high-level transit plan with cost estimates.
Consisting of members from each of the three counties' transit agencies, the JRPC worked for two years on a high-level plan and environmental impact statement. In May 1993, the committee adopted a proposed $13.2-billion plan for regional light rail, buses, and commuter rail. The following month, the three county councils voted to create the Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority. Nickels recalled:
"After RTA passed it was pretty heady days. It was the first time the region came together to do something. We don't have any multi-county entities with authority to do stuff. This was new ground and I think everyone was excited about the possibilities" (Cohen interview).
A Lot of Work Ahead
The RTA board that met for the first time on September 17, 1993, consisted of representatives from King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, along with state Secretary of Transportation Sid Morrison. Representing King County were King County Council members Paul Barden, Audrey Gruger (1930-2010), Bruce Laing (b. 1932), Greg Nickels, and Cynthia Sullivan; Bellevue City Council member Don Davidson; Federal Way City Council member Mary Gates; Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943); and Kent City Council member Jim White. Pierce County was represented by Bonney Lake City Council member Sharon Boekelman, Pierce County Council members Ken Madsen and Bill Stoner (1928-2005), and Tacoma City Council member Paul Miller. The board members from Snohomish County were Snohomish County Council member Bill Brubaker, Edmonds City Council member Dave Earling, and Everett Mayor Pete Kinch.
The members elected Bruce Laing as RTA board chair, with Bill Stoner and Bill Brubaker as vice chairs, and discussed the financial, legal, and staffing details under which the board would operate.
Although not an RTA board member, Ruth Fisher addressed the new board at the start of its first meeting because her advocacy in the legislature had played a key role in getting the RTA off the ground. In what would prove to be a sad prophecy, she closed her remarks by saying:
"There is a lot of work ahead of you and I believe that you will find a way to do it. I plan to live long enough to ride on this system; that is a blessing and a threat to all of you" ("Regional Transit Authority -- September 17, 1993").
Fisher was right that the board would eventually succeed, but the meeting was just the start of a rocky 16-year process of planning and building the first light-rail line in King County, considerably longer than Fisher or any of those present likely anticipated at the time. Not until 2009, four years after Fisher's death at age 79, would light rail open between Tukwila (soon extended to Sea-Tac Airport) and downtown Seattle.
Beginning in 1993, the RTA board members' first task was to take the high-level JRPC plan and turn it into a viable blueprint for a transit system. It took them 13 months to do so. There were disagreements over where exactly to put the tracks and early on a small contingent pushed for a system of buses driving in dedicated bus lanes rather than building light rail. But for the most part there was agreement that the region would get light rail running north-south along the corridor lying between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, and extending east into communities on the Eastside of Lake Washington.
By October 1994, the board adopted a master plan laying out a vision for light rail in Seattle and the surrounding metropolitan region, a streetcar in Tacoma, rush-hour commuter rail between Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett, and regional bus service. The board also adopted a $6.7 billion first-phase proposal to send to voters the following year.
Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned
In what would prove to be a major mistake, the board rushed the phase-one plan to voters in March 1995 in a special election. With lower turnout, especially among young voters, transit measures tend to do poorly in special elections. Looking back two decades later, Nickels noted that "You have to do it during presidential elections because young people vote [then] and young people believe they'll live to see this thing" (Cohen interview).
The phase-one measure won that March in Seattle, but got trounced just about everywhere else. But with a presidential election coming up in November 1996, the RTA board scrambled to get a second plan together for that general-election ballot.
Doing so was made more difficult by the fact that transit had lost some support among elected officials around the state after the special-election loss. Funding from the legislature disappeared and some project staffers were laid off. King County loaned the RTA money to keep it alive.
Chastened by their first ballot-measure experience, the board members came up with a scaled-back $3.9 billion first phase called Sound Move that the RTA promised to deliver on a shorter timeline. With higher turnout in the 1996 general election Sound Move got the votes it needed. Voters in each of the three counties gave RTA permission to build mass transit.
After three decades and three rejected ballot measures, rail transit was finally on track. But in a sense it turned out the hard part was just beginning. The RTA, which adopted the name Sound Transit in 1997, began operating its first express-bus lines and commuter trains between Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett in 1999. It opened its first light-rail segment in Tacoma in 2003. But it took a dozen years after the 1996 vote, and considerably more money than the original ballot measure envisioned, before light rail in King County opened in 2009, first between Tukwila and downtown Seattle, quickly followed by an extension to Sea-Tac Airport. Even before that Central Link line opened, voters in the three counties approved a second phase dubbed ST2 in 2008. And in 2016, the same year that Central Link was extended north to the University of Washington and south to Angle Lake, voters would approve a $54 billion ST3 plan for more light rail, commuter rail, and express bus service.