On a February day 40 years ago, just over 50 percent of metro-Seattle voters approved of Proposition 1. That was a plan to build 47 miles of electric rapid transit, with fast trains as often as every four minutes connecting every major hub in our region. Thanks to U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., a two-thirds federal contribution was secured and the region would only have paid $385 million, about $2.4 billion in 2008 dollars. The system would have opened in 1985 and been paid off last year.
At the time, though, a bond issue required 60 percent of the vote, so even with a majority, nothing could be built. The money earmarked for Seattle went instead to Atlanta. The long wait for rail began, and the case against it continues to be urged, more strongly than ever.
The anti-rail camp has all along used fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Detractors in 1968 called rail "inflexible" and labeled San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) plan "controversial." State Sen. Sam Guess, R-Spokane, promised a transit study committee for a bus alternative, but since a bus alternative would have meant giving up already full highway lanes, the bus plan floundered. With federal incentives spurring explosive suburban growth, the new American dream was in full swing, and those lanes were for Fords and Chevys.
The flexibility argument — that buses could follow shifting concentrations of passengers, unlike fixed rail — was always a straw man. (In practice, flexibility turns out to mean politically alterable, resulting mostly in slow, winding bus routes.) But nobody really thought our urban centers would pack up and move, requiring bus routes to follow them. Seattle's 1989 CAP initiative, limiting the height of Seattle office towers, did push some new construction to Bellevue. But even the iconic Smith Tower, completed in 1914 and long dwarfed by its Seattle neighbors, still has more stories than any of Bellevue's office towers. As highway money has dried up and oil prices have skyrocketed, development has shifted back to the city core.
Cities follow transportation. The ability to trade, in goods and ideas, is the primary driver of human development. Paris and London sit on rivers, Chicago on a lakeshore, Seattle alongside a storm-protected harbor. Fundamentally, cities develop to take in raw materials of every kind, then to add value by combining them into more specialized goods. Originally this meant iron ore, coal, and wood shaped into products and buildings. Now it also means software, genetic sequences, and circuitry.
These businesses and ideas don't occur in a vacuum. These ideas are brewed by discussions with the friend you run into at the coffee stand down the street. Every urban area's success is reliant upon its ability to foment face-to-face crossings between inventors and implementers, and these crossings happen proportionally to how dense and walkable our urban centers are.
Federal highway investment and other factors have long worked to shift these businesses from accessible but expensive downtown office buildings to widely spaced office parks. The diversity of experience in life and work was put in jeopardy and with it the United States' dominant role in innovation. Our urban vitality has been choked out by a lack of concentration.
We need to reverse this trend.
One key answer is rail transit. Forty years later, BART isn't so "controversial" after all, nor is Portland's MAX. Even here at home, our fledgling Sounder commuter rail will pull in well over 2 million passenger boardings in 2008. Rail isn't subject to the unreliability of highway congestion. People use it and people who want it demand new space to live and work near stations. Sound Transit's Link light rail is spurring thousands of new condos atop retail for the Rainier Valley, replacing vacant lots with dense development that offers a sure commute. The Sounder, with only commuter service during rush hours, is spurring development in Kent, where local government embraced it. Bellevue is already gearing up to develop near light rail a decade from now.
Buses have a key role as feeder services and in linking many smaller nodes. But they don't have the same concentrating effects, and so they alone cannot help us out of the pit we've dug with years of dispersed growth. We've proven that right here. While bus advocates won their battle in 1968, Seattle has created a system that may have saved some money but suffers from the unreliability of sharing lanes with traffic. We've had 40 years of trying to build a reliable bus-only transit system, only to bump into the political realities that prevent transit-only lanes or downtown roadways reserved for buses. Our transit system has fallen far behind our peers.
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