King County's Ron Sims

June 23, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

So far in this series, we have focused on the accomplishments of city mayors, but today we look at the "mayor" of a major county, Ron Sims, the county executive of King County, Washington. Two years ago, Governing recognized Sims as a Public Official of the Year, calling him an "across-the-board innovator." Sims serves his jurisdiction, which encompasses the city of Seattle, with the same wide-ranging view as Seattle's mayor, Greg Nickels.

Public leaders in almost any metropolitan area know that getting to work is both increasingly expensive and time consuming. Decisions concerning transportation planning and funding require tough tradeoffs and produce little acclaim for public officials. A sustainable transportation future requires expertise in finance, environmental protection and public health, as well as a keen awareness of public opinion.

In many ways, King County is already a national leader in public transportation. King County Metro Transit operates the country's oldest and largest vanpool, with a fleet of more than 1,000 vans and participation that grew by 20 percent in just the past year. This influx is certainly due in part to rising gasoline prices and road construction, but the county has worked to insure that the service is well run, and it provides numerous incentives for vanpoolers.

Metro Transit also runs one of the greenest and fastest-growing bus services in the nation. The county is by far the largest operator of hybrid-electric buses that not only offer increased fuel efficiency and reduced emissions but also save millions of dollars every year in maintenance costs. And through its Transit Now initiative, the county will be adding rapid-transit bus routes to five of the region's busiest corridors. Transit Now, which is financed by a 0.1 percent increase in the county sales tax ($25 per household per year), emphasizes bus, ride-share and vanpool transit options that can be grown quickly to reduce congestion and emissions.

It should be noted that improving public transportation and reducing highway traffic isn't the hardest sell in King County. Congestion is consistently a top issue in opinion polls, and King County has a long history of leadership in environmental conservation. In addition, because over 90 percent of Seattle's electricity is produced from zero-emissions sources, the biggest future cuts in carbon dioxide will come from reducing traffic on highways in the greater metropolitan area.

However, Seattle's commitment to public transit (along with its tolerance for decades of construction) does have limits. Sims -- in step with the wishes of his electorate -- has shown leadership by tempering the fervor of transportation advocates for massive infrastructure projects by continuing to focus on fiscal responsibility, environmental protection and near-term congestion relief.

In November 2007, voters defeated a pair of statewide proposals to spend $47 billion on 186 miles of new roadway and 50 miles of light rail. Many state legislators supported the measures, despite the high cost, and it took five years to put the measures on the ballot. Sims, however, took a significant risk and publicly opposed the measures rather than supporting the largest tax increase ever put before the state's voters.

And instead of rolling the rebuilding of the sinking State Route 520 bridge over Lake Washington into a 20-year construction plan, Sims took a leading role in securing a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Urban Partnership Program to help rebuild the bridge, improve transit options and test the effectiveness of variable tolls and congestion pricing. Seattle was one of five metropolitan areas selected by the federal government to test this innovative (and controversial) approach to demand mitigation and revenue generation. Leaders at all levels of government in the Seattle area continue to work together to finance the project without raising taxes and to complete the new bridge ahead of schedule.

In March 2007, Seattle voters rejected proposals from both the state and city governments to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which runs along the downtown area and Puget Sound. The elevated highway was damaged in a 2001 earthquake, and everyone agreed that the current structure needed to be razed. However, nobody could quite agree on what should replace it. After voters resoundingly defeated proposals put forth by both the governor and the mayor, it was back to the drawing board.

Fortunately, Sims had the foresight during this time to develop plans for a fiscally feasible and environmentally responsible surface-only alternative. Sims reframed the issue from one of moving 110,000 cars a day to the more important public-value question: How to facilitate the movement of that volume of people and goods regardless of the mode. The city, county and state have now joined forces to begin the initial phases of construction and to engage citizens in crafting a comprehensive 21st-century solution that upgrades mass-transit options, reduces commuter traffic, improves traffic flow through the downtown grid, and adds access for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Metropolitan areas across the United States are struggling with traffic and infrastructure issues as challenging (and as expensive) as these. Ron Sims' leadership serves as a reminder that progress will come when urban centers work to build regionally sound, fiscally responsible and comprehensive transit and transportation plans. Like Sims, urban leaders across the county should recognize the importance of offering near-term congestion relief. And like Sims, leaders should seek out innovative solutions to mitigate the growth in demand while building a transport system that promotes economic growth, environmental safety and public health.

I welcome your suggestions and feedback throughout the series. E-mail me at

Series introduction: Lessons from Our Best