The board's decision last Thursday to suspend any further progress on a proposed 15.5-mile train line running from Spokane to Liberty Lake -- and its concurrent decision to disband the light rail steering committee -- comes after the public voted against two advisory measures on the ballot in the general election.
"What [this] does is it acknowledges the vote that we had in November," said Munson, who made the motion to derail the project. "This is something that is confirming our sensitivity to the people, who have voted and told us what they want us to do."
But what exactly the voters were trying to tell the board remains unclear. That they didn't want light rail? That they weren't willing to pay for it? That they didn't like the proposed route? Or maybe that they simply didn't the trust the STA, a group that's been on thin political ice since a pair of controversial funding elections in 2002 and 2004?
While answers to such questions are hard to come by after any election, trying to parse them out is especially frustrating after this one. Voters were faced with two densely worded, confusing questions, and the campaign to educate the public on the issue was poorly funded and given a short timetable. (STA's board didn't finalize its ballot language until late September.)
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hree days earlier there were cookies and pizza and fruit punch at what would end up being the last meeting of the light rail steering committee -- a group of citizens, elected officials and STA reps who had worked for six years and spent nearly $9 million trying to create a viable light rail system in the area. But frustration was palpable as light rail project manager K.C. Traver broke down the election results by city and precinct.
Voters in areas that would not have been connected to the route tended to oppose the propositions, especially in Medical Lake and Airway Heights. Voters in Liberty Lake, who would have gained a direct link to Spokane, supported the two propositions more broadly than voters anywhere else besides Fairchild Air Force Base, though they accounted for only about one percent of the vote.
But there were a couple of surprising anomalies. For one, the city of Spokane Valley voted against both propositions. This isn't surprising in and of itself, but Traver points out that it flies directly in the face of surveys the steering committee commissioned in January of this year, which showed that 56 percent of respondents in the Valley supported the construction of light rail, while 22 percent opposed it and another 22 percent were unsure. For the vote to turn out like it did, Traver says, the entire unsure category would have had to swing over into the opposition category.
"From a pure statistical standpoint, it's hard to explain," he says. "There should not have been that level of discrepancy. Something else is at play that we either don't know or haven't accounted for."
Traver also points out that Spokane's East Central neighborhood showed one of the higher levels of support for light rail in the January survey, conducted by Portland's Moore Information. And yet East Central, too, voted against light rail.
Committee members say that since the election they've been accosted by voters who say they didn't understand what was being asked of them. Member Dick Raymond says he talked to a number of people who voted against the propositions. "But after I explained to them what it was and what the vote meant, they [said] 'Oh!' and the light came on," he says.
"We don't know whether this was a vote on should STA do it or should it be done or, as some people indicated to me, they thought this was a question of funding," says Phyllis Holmes, who chaired the committee. (Proposition 1 did not ask if they'd be willing to pay for light rail, but rather if they'd be willing to be asked to pay for it later down the line.) "You can line five people up and ask what they were voting on, and I guarantee you you'll get five different answers... That's a concern when there's a sense that we didn't really hear what the voters wanted to say, or that they didn't understand what we were asking."
At Thursday's board meeting, however, Rich Munson opined that the election results were consistent with the overall thrust of the Moore Information survey -- that although voters said they preferred light rail to other modes of transit, a majority said they weren't willing to pay for it. "If people aren't willing to pay for it, we can't make them pay for it," he said.
But even that is misleading, says Holmes, as the survey asked if voters would be willing to pay an extra three-tenths of a cent sales tax, and the ballot measures posited a lump sum ($263 million) without indicating how much of that sum voters might have to shoulder. "There's no consistency [to the questions] at all," she says.
Board member and Spokane city councilman Al French acknowledged the confusion at Thursday's meeting. "As I look at the results of the vote, there are all kinds of messages that could be part of [it]. I don't know that we'll ever know exactly what they were saying," he said. "Any and all are possible. But we do have to honor the vote."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & hursday night's meeting wasn't a complete loss for light rail, however, as board members set aside $5 million in their capital budget, a portion of which, several members averred, should be used to acquire rights-of-way for future high-capacity transit, whatever form that might take. "Now is not the time to build and operate light rail," said board member Brad Stark. "But that doesn't mean we should not preserve that option for the future. Future generations will thank us and herald us as visionaries for preserving that option."
The problem, says Holmes, is that if the light rail steering committee isn't allowed to finish its preliminary engineering, the board won't know what right-of-way to acquire. The steering committee might get a chance to finish that engineering, however. Because it's chartered under both the STA and the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, there's a possibility that the SRTC might take the committee under its purview, which could allow it to finish the engineering. A decision on the issue could be reached at that group's next board meeting, on Jan. 11.
"Without completing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the project has lost its federalization," says Holmes. "Which is a factor that we have worked very hard to maintain... It would be a pathetic waste of all the money that has been spent if that piece is not completed. It's like buying a new door and painting it and then hanging it by one hinge. I just don't think the board grasps that."