The first efforts to build modern rail transit in the Seattle area began about 50 years ago. A comprehensive plan was defeated by voters three times (1968, 70, 95), and then a shortened, "starter" system was passed in 1996. That's the one, shortened even further to just 14 miles, that opened this past weekend to general civic jubilation and maybe just in time to elect Mayor Greg Nickels to a third term.
The perennial Seattle questions arise: What takes so long? Why should Seattle be the biggest laggard for rail transit of all large American cities? Is it just transit — long a bedeviled question in these parts — or is there a broader Seattle malaise? Here's a baker's dozen of answers, only some pertaining to the endless transit debate.
1. Dispersed power. Like many Far West states, Washington and its cities take divided government to extremes, a legacy of the politics that was used to bust up the grip railroads had on our government. Most cities have a strong-mayor or strong-council system of government; we have both, in effect a 10-mayor system. And we have hundreds of local jurisdictions. Corraling all these fiercely independent entities takes a long, long time and usually produces a weak, weak compromise.
2. Passive-aggressive style. Seattleites are conflict-averse, or used to be (before Microsoft). That means seeming agreement is really just masked disagreement, and it takes a long time to put the cards on the table. Saying no early in the discussion would help greatly, but that's frowned on as hurtful. Smaller cities, where you worry about running into people you might have insulted, breed this kind of surface niceness.
3. The University of Washington. Seattle is unusual in having such a huge university in a middling-size burg, so the academic style of cranky disputatiousness looms larger than in most cities. Besides, the UW has long been the center of the pro-bus, anti-rail lobby — artfully argued since 1967 and never conceded. But it's not just orneriness. Our decision to build less-costly light rail, as opposed to longer trains of heavy rail (as proposed in 1968), has made Sound Transit especially vulnerable to cost-benefit analyses. Light rail is comparatively slow, especially when on the surface, and costly compared to its capacity. Worse, we have never really debated the merits of this particular light rail plan, heavily compromised by politics as it is, because the proponents have framed the debate as one between noble advocates of rapid transit and irrational opponents of all transit. Those who favor transit and yet feel the Sound Transit scheme is a poor one have been frozen out. They continue to fume and blog away.
4. Boeing. All those brainy engineers just love arguing about something as rich in mechanics, systems, and complex forecasting as transit. Boeing once even built some transit systems, called personal rapid transit, though it worked out badly for the company. Note also that rail transit does not serve any Boeing sites, though an earlier proposed route down Marginal Way would have done so.
5. Culture lag. It takes longer for ideas to make it out this far. That means by the time we get around to doing something other cities have done, a lot of the problems have become apparent. Rail transit doesn't really solve congestion, and it really is an old-fashioned mode of transit, we learn from these pioneering cities, some of whom have stillborn rail systems. Building transit later also means it's more expensive and more disruptive to the neighborhoods. Besides, proud innovators that we think we are (though way behind), we try to do it better or differently — as fatally demonstrated by the monorail, which was euthanized in 2005.
6. Affluence (not the worst problem to have). Being well off dulls the edge of urgency. A region where lots of people can afford cars has less demand for transit. Rich cities can afford, but don't really need, public services.
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