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Originally published November 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 6, 2008 at 1:42 AM

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How transit supporters closed deal with voters

Working with less than four months and less than $1 million, transit boosters persuaded voters in urban King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to make a lifelong commitment to light rail.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Sound Transit's 15-year plan

STARTING JAN. 1, shoppers in urban Snohomish, King and Pierce counties will pay a new sales tax of a nickel per $10 purchase. Major projects include:

Light rail: New tracks totaling 34 miles, to reach Lynnwood and north Federal Way by 2023, and the Overlake Transit Center near Microsoft by 2021.

Commuter trains: Four more round-trip Sounder trains between Pierce County and Seattle, for a total of 13 trains, between 2011 and 2015.

Express buses: An increase of 17 percent in Sound Transit's share of regional bus lines, beginning next year.

A historic argument over transit, dating to 1968, was settled Tuesday.

Working with less than four months and less than $1 million, transit boosters persuaded voters in urban King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to make a lifelong commitment to light rail.

The huge win for Sound Transit Proposition 1 came despite rising unemployment, a Boeing strike, the collapse of WaMu and a stock-market dive that ravaged retirement accounts.

Maybe voters figured those short-term strains don't matter, since the new sales tax will last at least three decades and the train system could last a century.

"The thing that we've been debating my entire lifetime is over. We are going to build light rail," said Chris Vance, a former state Republican Party chairman not involved in the contest. To him, the outcome reflects human nature. People like trains.

Sound Transit Chairman Greg Nickels, the Seattle mayor, repeatedly used the phrase "Metropolitan Seattle" in a victory speech Wednesday, to suggest the area finally functions like a world-class city.

"We have the leadership; we have the maturity to make political decisions for ourselves," he said.

Hopefully, Wednesday was the last time local politicians will complain about 1968 and 1970, when voters turned down tax measures for rail-transit construction. In 1996, voters approved the first phase of Sound Transit; the first line, from downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, opens late next year.

A year ago, a larger Roads & Transit measure won only 44 percent of the vote. Post-election polling found that people preferred to vote on one transportation mode at a time. This year, awareness of global warming and rising fuel prices boosted transit's potential to win.

But leaders nearly failed to compromise on routes, funding and bus-service levels — and didn't agree on the new ballot package until late July.

To win in just a few weeks, Mass Transit Now had to be "a campaign that was conducted at full throttle," said spokesman Alex Fryer.

Proponents needed a high turnout in a busy election year with high-profile races for president, governor and Congress. But they feared inexperienced voters would overlook Sound Transit. Targeted mailings told people to mark the transit measure first, at the end of the ballot.

One cheap campaign tool was to sign nearly 1,000 people onto a Facebook group where leaders could send alerts. At the University of Washington, groups friendly to Sound Transit helped hundreds of students register to vote.

Another goal was figuring out which precincts could be flipped from last year's no to this year's yes. Fertile areas included places that had rejected Tim Eyman initiatives against transit funding, voted yes in 2006 for King County Metro's Transit Now sales tax for buses and voted no on Roads and Transit in 2007.

North Seattle was obvious, but the campaign also identified Kirkland, south Snohomish County, and parts of Bellevue and Tacoma. The Sierra Club visited liberal Seattle precincts. A variety of volunteers, including union members, headed to the suburbs.

"It was less about persuasion; there wasn't a lot of proselytizing," said Andrew Glass-Hastings, campaign manager. "It was more for information." Tayloe Washburn, chairman of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, credited a "coalition of government, environmental, business and labor organizations working together."

Boosters raised $892,643, compared to $152,725 against. Pro-transit donors included engineering firms and other beneficiaries of rail dollars, as well as transit staffers and users. Opponents relied on radio ads similar to last year — emphasizing the tax bite. Glass-Hastings called that a strategic mistake that "didn't resonate."

Mark Baerwaldt, treasurer for Notoprop1.org, said he doesn't have insights as to why the measure prevailed. "Certainly not what we expected at all, but so be it, and that's kind of the end of the story."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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