The perfect is the enemy of the good, or so they say. The $17.8 billion roads-and-transit package that will go to King, Pierce, and Snohomish county voters in a matter of days is clearly far from perfect. As King County Executive Ron Sims has noted, it won't replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct or the 520 floating bridge. It will cost a lot of money. It won't reduce congestion. It won't reduce our regional carbon footprint. Sims, who emerged belatedly as an opponent of Proposition 1, says that the costs exceed the benefits.
Still, many local politicians defend the proposal. The late Walt Crowley, in an essay published after his death, argued that it represented a significant and irreversible step away from the age of the internal combustion engine.
Could we do better, assuming the measure is defeated? Sims figures that regional officials can fix the eye-glazing but critical issue of regional transportation "governance" and come back to the people with something better. And what if they can't? One close observer suggests "we've got this package not because it's good, but it's the best they could put together politically. That's the basic pro vote: It's better than nothing."
But is it really better than nothing? No, says the Sierra Club Cascade Chapter's Tim Gould. "The current proposal, with respect to greenhouse gasses, makes things worse," Gould says. "It essentially blows out of the water any chance we have of meeting" the county's ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target, announced last July by the Sierra Club and a group of large American counties. Gould says "we've reached the point where we can no longer accept bad highway projects just to get good transit projects." If we're serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he says, "we just don't get very far unless we can also reduce vehicle miles traveled."
The Cascade Chapter came out early as the only vocal opponent of Proposition 1. Sims and other skeptics kept their reservations to themselves, evidently hoping that the voters would reject the proposal on purely financial grounds. (Americans have always been reluctant to pay for transportation infrastructure. The historian Garry Wills, paraphrasing Henry Adams, writes that in 1800, "Americans' reluctance to submit to any requisitions on their own money made them put up with the terrible costs of bad roads or no roads rather than submit to paying turnpikes.")
Some of the arguments over Proposition 1 may be arcane, but most can be reduced to easy sound bites:
Build it and they will come. This is essentially the Sierra Club's argument. More lanes mean more driving, which in turn means more emissions of greenhouse gas. Instead, we need "lifestyle changes where people make it a point to live not so far from work."
Ending congestion is an illusion and perhaps a scam. Sims complains that Proposition 1 won't get rid of congestion soon enough and that other measures are less costly and likely to work sooner, such as congestion pricing and bus rapid transit.
The Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) Web site talks about reducing congestion. A recent performance audit commissioned by the state says that reducing congestion should be the main transportation priority for the Puget Sound region. It assumes congestion can be reduced. It recommends adding lanes, transit trips, car pooling, and telecommuting. Some of these recommendations are beyond the reach of conventional transportation policy. Some would clearly work. If you eliminate bottlenecks, traffic will move more freely.
But more lanes seldom mean less congestion - at least not for long. Neither do rails. Manhattan has great public transportation, but rush-hour Manhattan still has gridlocked streets. BART doesn't keep Bay Area freeways from being nightmares; it just enables hundreds of thousands of additional people to commute into downtown San Francisco every day. People know this, but they don't say it when they're trying to sell bonds.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!