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Sound Transit: Light rail and heavy marketing

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.

Saturation advertising

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.

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