I suspect we
have been fighting about transportation around here ever since the Denny party landed at Alki. I know for certain we have been at each other's throats regarding rail since the first proposal failed at the polls in 1968. Forget abortion and the war on terror. If you really want to start an argument in the Puget Sound area, bring up the topic of roads vs. rail. I got to know this feud all too well during eight years as a member of the Puget Sound Regional Council's Executive Board, the King County Council's Regional Transit Committee, and as chairman of the County Council's Transportation Committee.
In 2005, the Legislature tried to cut the Gordian knot by forcing Sound Transit and the Regional Transportation Improvement District (RTID) to go to the ballot together. Under the law, Sound Transit's phase 2 rail and bus plan, and RTID's highway expansion plan, must go on the ballot together, and both must pass for either to pass
. The combined package will be on the ballot this November in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties.
The idea was to force the pro-rail and pro-roads factions to work together rather than against each other. The problem is there aren't two sides in this debate, there are at least five, and many people approach the issue of transportation as if they were debating theology.
When it comes to transportation
there is virtually no common ground. Adherents to the various viewpoints passionately disagree on what a transportation system is supposed to accomplish. Are we just trying to move people around, or are we trying to accomplish other public policy objectives? Should demand dictate what we build, or should we compel people to use the "correct" forms of transportation? As I said, there are at least five distinct theologies competing.
Let's begin on the right with the largest but most ignored faction: the No-New-Taxers
. These are the voters who vote no on all tax increases. They feel overtaxed and distrust government and the "establishment." They are passionately opposed to light rail. They complain about seeing busses driving around half empty. They would love to see new freeway lanes built, but they refuse to believe that new taxes are necessary, convinced instead that "efficiencies" within the state Department of Transportation will provide the money. This philosophy is dominant among Republican activists, which causes tremendous tension between the GOP and its historic allies in the business community who strongly support higher taxes for transportation improvements. The No-New-Taxers are a huge voting bloc, comprising probably 30 percent to 40 percent of voters in the Puget Sound area. Yet their voice is rarely, if ever, heard in this debate.
Next there are the pro-roads, anti-rail Freemanites
. Led by Bellevue business leader and former legislator Kemper Freeman Jr., this group believes transportation modes should be analyzed logically. How many daily trips do the various options carry and at what cost? Which does the most to reduce congestion? This green-eyeshade accounting leads to obvious conclusions: Rail doesn't pencil, buses are OK, but people prefer cars. The Freemanites will support higher taxes, but only for more general-purpose lanes for cars and perhaps for dedicated bus lanes for those who want to use transit. This group has money and a Web site
. They have run radio ads and have tremendous influence among Republican elected officials and the Eastside business community.
In the ideological center you find the Build-It-All Boosters
. This is where the establishment lives. Congestion is bad for business, and mega projects create jobs, so big business, big labor, and most civic groups and editorial boards will strongly support the combined roads-and-transit package. The Boosters support this, too, and any package that might make things better than they are today. They will provide the money and organization for the campaign. This group also includes that large bloc of voters who polling indicates support building mass transit so someone else can use it, thus making it easier for them to drive to work alone.
To the left stand the super-powerful Rail Zealots
. Rail and high-density development are good; cars and sprawl are bad. They aren't interested in the Freemanites' numbers. They want to use rail to drive land use and generate density. This philosophy is absolutely dominant among the liberal intelligentsia, the environmental community, Seattle voters, and, therefore, the Democratic Party. Add in the new focus on climate change, and the term zealot is hardly an exaggeration. These folks absolutely hate cars, it seems. They support rail and buses, more bike lanes, more HOV lanes, and congestion pricing to compel suburbanites to stop driving to work alone. The Zealots have dominated the transportation debate around here for 40 years, but now they are divided. Some groups, such as Transportation Choices
, are supporting the combined package because it includes a massive expansion of light rail. Other groups, like the Sierra Club
, can't stomach the highway portion and stand in opposition.
Finally, you have the Anti-Rail Left
. Not all liberals like light rail. Some, most notably Emory Bundy
, and my former King County Council colleague, Maggi Fimia, hate light rail as much as Kemper Freeman does. The difference is they also hate cars. Their group, the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives
, relentlessly attacks rail, echoing the Freemanite line on cost and ridership, and propose instead a "bus-rapid-transit" (BRT) system – a huge expansion of bus service on dedicated bus-only lanes. They oppose both the Sound Transit and RTID segments of the combined proposal.
So where does truth lie?
If your only goal is to reduce congestion, the Freemanites and Bundy are right. As David Brewster pointed out in a June article
, the densities just aren't here to support light rail, especially in the suburbs. A BRT system, combined with the highway improvements included in the RTID plan, would be the best way to move the most people at the least cost. The reality, however, is that this debate has never been about numbers, it's about values. To many people and many groups, light rail stands for increasing density, reducing sprawl, and, now, stopping global warming. Others see rail as big government and social engineering out of control.
We can't agree, so we're going to settle this like Americans. We're going to have an election. Unfortunately, ignoring all other viewpoints, only the option supported by the Boosters and some of the Rail Zealots will be on the ballot.
The conventional wisdom is that the Sound Transit/RTID package will go down to defeat this November. Seventeen billion dollars is just too much for voters to swallow; increasing the car tab tax is very unpopular. Seattle voters will vote against RTID, while everyone else will vote against Sound Transit. Maybe. But I'm not so sure.
First of all, the pro side will have all the money. I really doubt the Freemanites will be able to come close to what the Boosters will raise. Second, the vote will only occur within the areas in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties that are in both the Sound Transit and RTID districts. Those lines were gerrymandered to ease passage of ballot measures. Most importantly, no one should underestimate how hungry voters are to do something, anything
, to get out of congestion. I would call this election a toss-up right now.
If the combined measure
passes, the debate over light rail will effectively be over. The Freemanites and Anti-Rail Left will continue to object, but the region will have committed itself to a massive, three-county rail system - just what the Zealots have always wanted. If the package fails, Sound Transit will get their proposal back on the ballot alone as soon as possible. Light rail will never go away.
But what about roads? Ironically, I believe the Freemanites' best chance at getting the new general-purpose lanes they support comes via a linkage with the hated light-rail proposal. Many of the Rail Zealots understand this. They support killing the combined package now, then coming back for another vote on Sound Transit only.
If the package passes, the Rail Zealots will fight to make all the new lanes HOV-only. They will demand high tolls and congestion pricing. They will battle over design of the new Highway 520 bridge. They will fight, but they will be at a disadvantage due to the specificity of the RTID package and the demonstrated will of the voters. If the combined package fails, however, they will fight to keep RTID from ever getting to the ballot again - and they might succeed.
Those who support more freeway lanes need to be careful what they wish for. They are the ones with the most to lose this November.