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Transportation: Can’t we all just get along?

A tolling scheme.

A demand-management tolling scheme, this one outlined in a recent proposal by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

With the new year, wouldn’t it be great if we could start to approach our transportation planning and investment collaboratively, instead of staying locked in confrontation?

The place to start is for each “side” to give up unproductive extremist positions and predictions. I’ll go first. My opposition to rail transit is of long standing, and I welcomed Proposition 1’s defeat. But I also realize that the majority of the population likes the idea of rail and is willing to pay for more; that is the citizens’ right.

So all predictions that rail is “dead” are nonsensical. I suspect that the downtown-to-Sea-Tac Airport line will be sufficiently popular to induce the area’s voters to complete the line to Northgate. (I just wish we had an above-ground design rather than a tunnel.) But beyond that, the next best link, if any – north to Lynnwood, south to Tacoma, or east on Interstate 90 to Bellevue, or east to Redmond on a new Highway 520 floating bridge – is terribly uncertain and should be subject to very thorough and careful cost-benefit and alternatives analyses.

Given the potential for bus rapid transit (BRT) for the north and south corridors, and via I-90 to Issaquah, the 520 high-tech corridor alignment would probably be most effective for rail transit, inasmuch as 520 needs to be replaced anyway.

Now, for the response from the other side, those environmental groups, planners, and urbanists who believe that in the future we all will live and work in high density cityscapes and that the private car is doomed. I suggest they simply give up that absurd and unhelpful delusion. Let’s agree that there will be no more full-fledged “freeways” (which wouldn’t be free in any case), but we will have to spend billions on road improvements and replacement to keep the highly interconnected material economy going.

Can’t we just admit it, and set some realistic timetables? On my priority list, besides 520, would be Interstate 405, Highways 2 (inexcusable neglect), 522, 169, 9, probably some way to address the downtown Interstate 5 bottleneck, and, of course, the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Another way to ease congestion is to upgrade some critical intersections by such improvements as grade separation.

At the same time, the region needs to recognize that construction alone cannot meet future demand or relieve congestion and that we must implement demand management and other constraints on the unfettered growth of single-occupancy-vehicle driving. Besides the Highway 167 experiment (HOT and bus lane), let’s look at additional corridors for BRT and selective tolls or congestion pricing. How about 520 and I-90 [622K PDF] – soon! Such tolling is inevitable. And it seems only fair that those folks who choose to work on one side of Lake Washington but live on the other should pay a little extra for those preferences.

And I’ll yet again draw attention (with little hope) to the over-reliance on freeways and the gross under-utilization of a basically fine network of urban arterials. To make them work better, we’d have to grasp the nettles of reducing parking, and changing unloading, turning, and parking regulations.

My cordiality and cooperative mood is not unlimited, however. I have to say that streetcars, no matter how cute, belong in theme parks, not interfering with bus, car, truck, bicycle, and pedestrian use of roads. Not one more inch!

Finally, as to the big issue of changing governance: Many people want to believe that it isn’t incompatible visions but decision-making organization that is the underlying cause of our political gridlock. Some have suggested a transportation czar as a savior. I fear that is exactly the wrong way to go, as would be an elected board, which would simply reproduce the confrontational gridlock of incompatible interests.

Another problem with a powerful regional transportation authority is that it ignores the fact that almost all the transportation infrastructure we are talking about is of a paramount state and federal interest, and that, ultimately, it is the state government and Legislature, led by representatives of the Seattle region, that must be responsible for these vital decisions.

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