The launch party for the two light rail stations was, in hindsight, “too much.”
The consultants, tote bags, security and ads – it added up to $858,000 of taxpayer money.
But that was just one way Sound Transit, the regional transit agency, spends tax dollars to promote its services.
As Sound Transit prepares to put a $54 billion ballot measure to voters this fall, critics and regulators say some of the agency's promotional activities cross the line to election campaigning – an illegal activity for any government agency.
'What doesn't get funded?'
Sound Transit paid Seattle firm The Workshop $550,000 to plan and run the launch party. Other expenses included $130,000 in advertising and more than $50,000 worth of commemorative schwag.
"What doesn't get funded when you spend that much on trinkets and parties?" Maggie Fimia with the nonprofit Smarter Transit asked inside the new station beneath Husky Stadium. Her all-volunteer group dug up the public records that revealed how much taxpayer money Sound Transit spent to celebrate two new underground stations.
"No one's monitoring them," said Fimia, a former King County Council member and longtime critic of Sound Transit. "We saw with the party they don't understand how to spend this money."
The Workshop also helped the Washington State Department of Transportation celebrate the opening of the new state Route 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington a couple weeks later.
But taxpayers paid much less for the 520 bridge party: WSDOT found corporate sponsors including Microsoft and Delta Air Lines to cover all but $100,000 of the event's $750,000 cost, according to WSDOT spokesperson Steve Peer.
Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick said Sound Transit considered asking construction firms, which would be bidding for the multimillion-dollar contracts to build future light-rail stations, to sponsor the event.
"We concluded that wasn't such a good idea," he said.
Sound Transit did not consider soliciting other sponsors that would not be seeking construction contracts from the agency, as WSDOT did.
"It's something we could look at more in the future," Patrick said.
The light-rail launch was just one way that Sound Transit tries to interest the public in using transit. The agency spends between $5 million and $7 million a year on communications and public relations.
"It's real money," Fimia said. "People have worked hard to pay the taxes. It should be going into service."
Sound Transit's 2016 plan is to saturate the region – especially the 79 percent of commuters who don't use transit – with advertising, including TV ads, social media and (full disclosure) underwriting on KUOW Public Radio.
"By the end of the 2016 campaign, 90 percent of our target audience will have seen Sound Transit's message at least 50 times," a March 2016 summary of the agency's advertising program states.
Fimia doesn't dispute that transit agencies should spend money to draw people out of their cars and onto buses and trains.
"This is an unreasonable amount of money," Fimia said. "If you've got a good product, you don't need that much money to sell it."
"If we're going to take the time to advertise, we want to have it at a volume that it's going to make a difference," Patrick, the transit spokesman, said. "We have some pretty good evidence our advertising works because we're seeing such high ridership gains in comparison to other regions."
He couldn't say how much, if any, of those ridership gains are due to advertising.
To do more than just a "he said, she said" kind of story, KUOW looked into the advertising and public relations of a half-dozen transit agencies up and down the West Coast.
We compared their communications spending and found that Sound Transit's efforts to drive public interest in its services do stick out. That's true even among other large agencies, like BART in the San Franscisco area and Los Angeles Metro, that are building major new transit facilities and need to involve the public in that process.
Every time someone steps aboard a Sound Transit bus or train, the agency spends about 19 cents on its communications – more than at any agency we examined from Everett to Los Angeles.
Communications is just half a percent of Sound Transit's budget. Patrick said, by that measure, his agency is not out of line with other transit agencies that have major construction programs like Sound Transit does. Sound Transit comes out spending more heavily than BART but less than Los Angeles Metro, which has opened two new light-rail lines this year and is building several more.
On top of the expense, there are questions about the legality of Sound Transit's public relations. Take this animated video the agency published in January:
"By the year 2040, you ready to gasp? A million more people, and that's hard to grasp," a folksy cartoon character in beard and cowboy hat sings. "But we're Sound Transit, and we've got a plan – as well as an attitude of 'Yes We Can.'"
That plan is known as ST3. It's the $54 billion package of megaprojects the agency hopes voters will approve – either because or despite its unprecedented size – in November.
"Mass transit gives choices, and since we're being candid," the transit troubador continues, "It's flexible, which means it can be expanded."
"On hearing that, I think that sounds like an advertisement," said Evelyn Lopez, executive director of the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. "They're also talking about expansion, so that sounds like it may be an advertisement for increasing funding through their ballot measure."
Government agencies are allowed to advertise themselves and ask the public what it wants, as Sound Transit does in outreach meetings and in polls and surveys. But trying to influence an election would violate state law.
"It's OK to gauge your constituents' priorities and wishes, but they need to do it in a way that the language isn't promoting the idea of expanding transit or promoting the measure they're going to be putting on the ballot," public disclosure spokesperson Lori Anderson said.
Patrick said Sound Transit's public relations is about the same this year as it has been in years without a ballot measure.
"In a democracy, it's appropriate for a public agency like us to try to be responsive to what people want and put forward proposals that represent public opinion," he said.
The public disclosure commission has been looking into Sound Transit's surveys and polls to make sure their questions don't cross the line into campaigning. In response to recent reporting by the Seattle Times, the public disclosure commission had Sound Transit delete a question from an online survey.
On June 14, after KUOW brought the transit troubador video to the attention of the public disclosure commission, Sound Transit took it off YouTube at their request. The small watchdog agency's enforcement of campaign-finance laws is mostly limited to responding to complaints.
"We are going to stick to providing factual information to the measure that's before voters, and people can get that on our website," Patrick said, "but there won't be any advertising or other expenditures designed to influence people's decisions."
"That doesn't mean that we'll stop talking about opportunities to ride trains and buses altogether," he said.
"The government has a lot of resources, a lot of people working for it," Evelyn Lopez, the state's chief campaign watchdog, said. "If those resources are misused, that really does damage the whole concept of democracy, which is supposed to be from the people, not from the government."
Half-million in ads canceled
Light-rail-promoting Sound Transit and its light-rail-doubting critics rarely see eye to eye. But the agency says criticism of its big light-rail party has made a difference.
"Cumulatively, we've heard the criticism that it was too much," Patrick said. "We're going to be reducing our costs going forward," Patrick said.
He said the agency will be more frugal when it opens the Angle Lake light-rail station south of SeaTac Airport this fall.
Patrick also disclosed that Sound Transit decided in mid-May to cut $500,000 off its $1.8 million advertising campaign this year. He said light-rail ridership has been high enough since the two new stations opened that the agency decided that much advertising wasn't necessary.
The Sound Transit board will vote Thursday, June 23, on the final form of the ST3 package.