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Originally published Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Two on a transportation life raft

The people of the Puget Sound region shouldn't be asked for more taxes for roads and transit without first getting a reorganization of the government that would spend their money.

The people of the Puget Sound region shouldn't be asked for more taxes for roads and transit without first getting a reorganization of the government that would spend their money.

Loose talk is like the flotsam of the November election that soundly defeated a combined roads-and-transit package — by 56 percent to 44 percent. In modern terms, that's a landslide of rejection. The package was so large, with so many billions of dollars committed to a buffet of political priorities, the people said no. I believe they also said "try again." But, trying again in the current political soup would only lead to another pile of confusing and politically expedient choices for voters. Instead, we need to start from the top down and reorganize the system before we feed that system more money.

As Proposition 1 sank below the waves in November, I spotted two guys on a life raft. They are former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and businessman John Stanton. Their converged wisdom has resulted in a plan of attack that is more than the same old story about regional differences.

"The current system is dysfunctional," Rice said before The Seattle Times editorial board last week. By that, he means a system that separates roads from transit and gives the highest tax-seeking power to people nonelected to their seats. "This is what you get when government is in silos and not talking to each other," Rice said.

The current Sound Transit board members are placed in their roles by dint of being elected to something else — mayor, county council, county executive, whatever. This federated board displays the inefficiencies of the federated form of government, Stanton said, and shows why direct government — seats of authority directly elected by the voters — should replace the way transportation decisions are made.

Opponents, some of them already on the current board, warn that directly elected transportation commissioners would only bring out the aficionados and the nuts. Rice and Stanton make a good case why that wouldn't happen and why a new system would bring about the most valued coin of all: a return of voter trust.

A Regional Transportation Authority would behave quite differently if created by the state.

Seven people would report directly to voters, six elected within King, Pierce and Snohomish counties and one elected at large from the three counties; three would be appointed by the three county executives; the state transportation secretary and the director of the Puget Sound Regional Council are automatic members. Members directly elected by voters would be seven, combined with five appointed/designated members for a 12-member board. They would be part-time government, without full-time salaries.

This reorganization would consider transportation, not roads and transit separately. Fighting the idea in Olympia would be most of the factions now in place: county council members, mayors and others who now command a place at the table and would be graciously deposed. Somebody already elected and holding a political post would not be eligible to serve as a dual-elected member of the RTA board.

In simplicity there is grace, and maybe efficiency. The towering failure last November came from a squishy "pro" campaign that never seemed to identify who was in charge, a package of confusing and conflicting uses of the money, including a $3 billion rail track to Tacoma where one exists already, and the usual infighting among the political establishment.

Grab the life raft.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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