Region’s major corporations are backing ST3 with big donations

Related: Sound Transit 3 election preview

SEATTLE — Take a look at who’s opening their wallet to support Sound Transit’s ambitious expansion plan in the upcoming election, and you’ll see an A-list of the region’s corporate titans.

Tech firms Microsoft, Expedia and Amazon are among the top donors to the campaign urging people to support ST3, which would usher in a quarter-century of rail and bus projects paid for with higher taxes and fees.

The Seattle-area’s digital giants had helped Mass Transit Now raise about $3.5 million by late last week. They were joined on the donor roll by Issaquah-based bricks-and-mortar behemoth Costco Wholesale. The region’s pre-eminent law firms, environmental champions, engineering companies and labor unions lent their support as well.

The donations gave Sound Transit 3’s backers a more-than tenfold fundraising advantage over those trying to defeat the measure in the Nov. 8 election.

Supporters said their contributions reflect a desire to respond to worsening traffic in the state’s three most populous counties.

“There is a shared understanding around the fact that if we’re going to knit this region together and keep the region competitive as it continues to grow, we need the kind of reliable transit system that forms the backbone of other successful big cities,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a Seattle political consultant and campaign adviser.

Microsoft Corp. and its founder, Bill Gates, are the top donors with a collective $400,000. Expedia gave $150,000, Amazon $110,000 and Costco Wholesale $100,000.

Microsoft views the transit package as a way to upgrade the quality of life throughout the region, particularly for its 2,800 employees who live in Snohomish County. Many of them brave nightmarish commutes on I-405.

“Some of the earliest projects in this package to open up include bus rapid transit on I-405, which will benefit everyone traveling along the corridor,” said Irene Plenefisch, Microsoft’s director of government affairs.

Kevin Wallace, a Bellevue City Councilman and a leading voice in the opposition, said some donors are acting in line with their corporate philosophies and political agendas. The contractors, engineering firms, lawyers and labor unions backing ST3 are part of what Wallace dubbed “the Light Rail Industrial Complex.” They stand to pick up years of union jobs and lucrative construction contracts.

By the numbers

Sound Transit 3 would build out 62 miles of light rail in Snohomish, Pierce and King counties. New destinations would include Everett, Tacoma, Ballard, West Seattle, downtown Redmond, south Kirkland and Issaquah.

For Snohomish County, the most obvious benefit is extending Link light-rail track to Everett Station by 2036, via the Paine Field industrial area. The plan includes one new bus rapid-transit route, mostly along I-405 between Lynnwood and Burien, with another serving areas between northeast Seattle and Woodinville mostly via Highway 522.

All of that comes with a $54 billion price.

The measure would cost the average adult taxpayer $169 more per year, through a combination of added sales tax, property tax and car-tab fees, according to Sound Transit’s calculations. Additional funds would come from federal grants, bond sales and by extending transit taxes that voters approved for earlier measures.

Of the money raised by Mass Transit Now, roughly 40 percent came from corporations, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports by The Daily Herald. Contractors and engineering firms combined for nearly a third. Labor unions unions were close behind, based on reports filed with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The Washington and Northern Idaho District Council of Laborers gave $135,000, the most among donors with a Snohomish County address.

Headquartered in Lynnwood, the union represents more than 10,000 workers from the commercial construction field and other industries. Its members are helping build some of the region’s mega transportation projects, including the Highway 99 tunnel in Seattle and improvements to I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass.

Billy Wallace, political director for the council of laborers, said ST3 promises decades of work. For some, it could be their entire career.

“This in an investment in their future — their long-term future, I guess I should say,” Wallace said. “There are people who could potentially start these projects as an apprentice and could potentially retire on them.”

Donors included companies already working for Sound Transit.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is designing the East Link Extension to South Bellevue, contributed $62,000. Parsons Transportation Group, part of the team which designed and built the Central Link tunnel from downtown Seattle to the University District, gave $50,000. CH2M Hill Engineers, which also has worked for Sound Transit, donated $60,000.

Premera Blue Cross gave $25,000 for similar reasons as Microsoft. Most of the health insurer’s workforce commutes to its headquarters in Mountlake Terrace.

“With more than 2,500 employees living and working in the Snohomish County area, we believe an efficient and effective transportation system is vitally important not only for the continued economic growth of Snohomish County but for the well-being and productivity of our employees who spend hours on the road each week getting to and from our headquarters in Mountlake Terrace,” said Leonard Sorrin, Premera’s vice president for congressional and legislative affairs, in a prepared statement.

Not all contributions to the ST3 cause are in cash.

Transportation Choices Coalition, a statewide voice for pro-bus, bike and rail policies, is paying for employees conducting the day-to-day campaign. It’s added up to about $12,000 of in-kind contributions.

Similarly, Economic Alliance Snohomish County is paying for a person to help coordinate events and activities in the county. It amounts to roughly $5,500 of in-kind contributions so far.

Seeking ‘better solutions’

The No on ST3 campaign committee has raised roughly $317,000, of which $210,000 is from Bellevue-based Kemper Holdings. Its leader, Kemper Freeman, Jr., is a longtime transit skeptic within the Eastside development community.

Other big donors to the opposition include the King County Republican Party at $70,000 and cell phone pioneer Bruce McCaw at $20,000. Kevin Wallace, the Bellevue councilman and president of Wallace Properties, has given $6,000.

“For us, it’s not an atypical amount of money to put into a measure,” Wallace said.

He said the campaign lacks the money needed to air TV commercials but hopes to spread its message through online ads and direct mail.

“It costs too much and it takes too long,” he said. “There are better solutions.”

It’s not only the well-connected who object to ST3. Joe Superfisky of Bothell chipped in $50 to the “no” campaign for many of the same reasons.

The retired middle school teacher said the measure would deal too large a financial blow. His experience has left him wary of what he views as political scare tactics. He said he didn’t notice any dire consequences after a King County ballot measure to fund more bus service — he lives south of the county line — failed at the polls in 2014.

“I don’t think there’s any accountability,” he said. “I think they’re asking for the moon. If this thing passes, the citizens of these three counties aren’t going to have any say in it.”

What about Boeing?

Absent from the list of donors is the Boeing Co., which stands to benefit with a station proposed near its manufacturing hub in Everett. Snohomish County’s elected leaders fought hard for a route that served the area, even though following the I-5 corridor would have been cheaper to build, could have been completed sooner and would have made for a quicker trip between Everett and Seattle.

A Boeing official said the company’s lack of financial support is a matter of corporate policy, not politics.

“Boeing contributes millions of dollars every year to improve our community. However, one area we don’t give is toward local ballot measures,” Paul Bergman, communications and media relations for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, wrote in an email.

That hasn’t always been the case.

In 2008, the company gave $10,000 to Mass Transit Now’s successful campaign to pass Sound Transit 2, which authorized the agency’s previous round of expansion. And in 2007, Boeing contributed $190,000 to Keep Washington Rolling, the political campaign behind a ballot measure known as the Roads and Transit package. Voters rejected it.

Meanwhile the company’s largest worker’s union is on board.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District Lodge 751 gave $25,000 to the pro-ST3 forces.

A planned stop at Paine Field will be great for members seeking an option to an increasingly torturous commute, said Larry Brown, political director for IAM 751.

“It is getting worse and worse and worse,” Brown said of the congestion to and from the Everett facility. “We’ll learn to love the light rail.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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