Ron Lucas said Sound Transit’s expansion creates decades of higher taxes and won’t relieve congested highways. He wants to turn attention northward and make sure light rail gets to Everett as early as possible.
Ron Lucas, mayor of the waterfront town of Steilacoom, publicly opposed Sound Transit’s $54 billion expansion plan two years ago, saying it creates decades of higher taxes and won’t relieve congested highways.
Now he’s vice chairman on the transit board, appointed in January.
A retired Army colonel, Lucas survived a helicopter crash in Vietnam and later served as an Army inspector general. Most of his Pierce County neighbors opposed ST3 while King and Snohomish voters propelled the measure to victory.
The agency’s original bylaws say board members “serve in support” of transit projects. Dissent is rare — which makes Lucas an odd duck at Sound Transit.
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Here are highlights from an interview with The Seattle Times last week.
Q: We’re choking in traffic all over the region. Why did you think ST3 was a bad option?
A: “When you get below Federal Way, coming to Pierce County, if it’s a billion dollars a mile, there’s six, seven, eight miles there’s nothing going on, and it ends at [Tacoma’s] Freighthouse Square,” he said.
[The 9½-mile trackway and stations are estimated at $2.1 billion, not counting trains, a maintenance base, finance charges and inflation.]
Lucas rejects the assumption that people will converge at the Tacoma light-rail station to ride north toward Seattle because, he believes, most population growth will be in east Pierce County areas like Puyallup. “Nobody’s going to ride it,” he said.
High-capacity rail fits well in Seattle or Redmond, but “90 percent” of growth in the region will happen in car-dominated suburban communities, he expects.
Lucas also doubts that, financially, ST3 will make it to Everett or even Tacoma without further taxes. In that case, Seattle and King County would get its projects, but regional projects “will fail at ST4.”
Q: Why join the board if you opposed the plan?
A: “I’m there representing with my focus on the portion to Pierce County and Everett,” he said. In watching out for the interests of suburbs, Lucas said he’s taking over for Sumner Mayor Dave Enslow, an ST3 supporter who died in December a short time before he was to leave office and retire.
Q: What changes in ST3 do you support that are affordable, practical and legal?
A: “I would be an advocate to try and get Everett earlier,” he said. The Lynnwood-Everett corridor isn’t scheduled to get light rail until 2035. “Snohomish County north toward Marysville and Arlington is jammed, it’s terrible.”
Money for Everett service must be found somehow, he said, a matter he’ll press at the board’s spring retreat. Lucas would consider removing “infill stations” someplace else.
ST3 promised Graham Street and North 130th Street infill stops in Seattle, another at Boeing Access Road in Tukwila, and potential stops at 220th Street Southwest in Mountlake Terrace, Highway 99/Airport Road in Everett, and Lakemont in southeast Bellevue.
Outer cities like Mill Creek deserve bus-rapid transit and creative ideas, such as using church parking lots “instead of building parking garages all the time, to get the suburban people off the road in greater numbers,” he said.
Q: Do you support proposals to let Pierce County or cities secede from ST3?
However, he’s warming to another critics’ proposal — for the public to directly elect the transit-board members, in hopes they will more closely scrutinize costs and plans.
Currently the 18-member board includes the executives of Pierce, Snohomish and King counties, as well as the state transportation secretary. The other members are elected officials appointed by county executives.
He’s amazed to see the county executives, along with fellow members Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, devote time to Sound Transit.
“They’ve got a bazillion things to do, and looking into anything is not what happens,” he said. Staff reports fly through committees and win quick board approval, he said.
“We usually only have five to seven board members there, because they have other jobs. I’m somewhat going toward the elected board, but I have difficulty with that. It will turn into a political football anyway, but possibly they will have more time to get involved.”
State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, has proposed letting cities or a county nullify ST3 taxes by public ballot. Secession bills have no chance in the present Legislature, Lucas said.
But within five to 15 years, he said, when car-tab taxes remain high, traffic worsens and ST3 construction costs increase, voters will demand changes.
“It’s going to get so bad that they’re going to ‘throw the bums out’ that are on the board, from the standpoint that you’re going to have to come up with a different fix to move people.”
Q: Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier said in nominating you for Pierce County’s vice-chair slot, “He does his homework and I can guarantee he will ask his share of the difficult questions.” What are a couple examples?
A: The board on March 1 approved a $574,115 repair bill for damage caused by an SUV hitting a light-rail train in Sodo. Repairs come with a five-year or 500,000 mile warranty. “Which is it?” Lucas asked. He was told the railcars go just 68,000 miles a year, so the five-year limit didn’t make sense to him. He said he intends to follow up.
A Sounder train mysteriously stopped Feb. 23 while Lucas rode to Seattle. He emailed Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff, who explained that sometimes a connection drops in Sounder’s new satellite-based crash prevention system, and the train halts for rebooting. “I don’t know that anybody else has asked him a question about that,” Lucas said.
Q: What’s your impression of management and leadership at Sound Transit?
A: Rogoff was a “perfect fit” to help compete for federal grants, after working for Congress and heading the Federal Transit Administration, said Lucas. However, the board denied Rogoff a 2017 bonus, based on employee complaints of an abrasive management style.
“He was on staffs. I don’t know that he managed large numbers of people. If you’ve not been in Washington, D.C., and I have been, it’s a rock ’em, sock ’em deal. [Lucas pounds the table and mimics a boss giving orders.] Whose guy, man or woman, is the bigger one and who’s got the heft, and what kind of money’s involved to do that?”
The 800-person staff is the size of a military battalion, not especially large, he said. Lucas said Rogoff is making progress adapting to Seattle, and maybe could use a couple aides with particular skills to manage the organization.
Q: ST3 promises Sounder trains in 2036 to Tillicum and DuPont near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, at $325 million to serve 1,000 to 2,000 people. Is that a good investment?
A: “Crazy, isn’t it?”
DuPont is bracing for rapid growth, and leaders want trains to bring commuters to its 400 acres of industrial lands and the Amazon fulfillment center, he said. But currently, Sound Transit’s riders in the area tend to be park-and-ride users from Thurston County passing through — instead of soldiers or warehouse workers.
So it’s not clear that JBLM is a great transit market. Lucas said it might be, but Sounder won’t link the base to shopping centers. “Leaving out the Tacoma Mall was an error because that’s how you could get people there and cars off the road from a lot of different places.”