Light rail at last: What took us forever?

Link Light Rail.

The bus tunnel investment of 1989 is finally paying off Credit: Sound Transit

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.

7. Complacency. Seattle really is (was?) a favored city, so it’s not easy to feel a compelling need to make tough decisions, even if we feel some embarrassment about our procrastination. Our politicians reflect this by becoming “garden-tenders,” comforting the constituencies that elect them without having to make hard decisions that might alienate them. And, with only Democrats in office, there’s little fear of losing a job, once elected.

8. City of commerce. Seattle, like many other great cities (Venice, Amsterdam, New York, Shanghai), is overwhelmingly about making money and building businesses, with a correspondingly weak and overshadowed civic culture. This was not true in the 1955-80 period, when the Seattle region emerged from its small-government snooze, jolted by all the growth created by the Cold War. But the civic institutions have now wilted, and the global-brand businesses of the region attract employees who find local politics parochial and sluggish. These well-paid employees usually buy their way out of public-sector problems like poor schools, lurching buses, or unkempt parks.

9. A reluctant metropolis. Like Los Angeles (but unlike Portland, Vancouver, Minneapolis, and Denver), Seattle has very weak regional institutions. Transit is regional, and it has to be able to tap the suburban tax base to fund transit systems. Our regional governance is so weak that it has to bribe outlying suburbs by giving them a dollar back in transit (normally empty buses) for every dollar they put into the system — no way to run a railroad, and another reason Sound Transit plans are so vulnerable to criticism.

10. Secession of business leadership. The rise of Microsoft and the Eastside has split the business community into old and new economies, and the new global companies don’t have time to spend on local civic issues. Other mainstays, such as Boeing, WaMu, Safeco, SeaFirst, RainierBank, and Frederick & Nelson have drifted away. With fractured local politics, only a unified and enlightened business leadership can pull things together. Another aspect of this: the decline of influence of The Seattle Times, formerly a regional orchestrator.

11. Hills and lakes. The topography makes rail transit tough and expensive.

12. We’re spoiled. The Cold War built modern Seattle (Boeing, UW and its Medical School, high tech), and the Henry Jackson-Warren Magnuson years accustomed us to having the federal government pick up90 percent of the bill for expensive projects like transit. We don’t pay; sugar daddies pay. Take away the sugar daddies, and…

13. Inactive government. Seattle likes big government (all those secure union jobs and benefits). It likes “good government,” meaning lots of process, transparency, high-mindedness, and consensus building. It likes feel-good government that takes politically correct stands on all kinds of things it can’t really affect. As part of the feel-good formula, we even like raising taxes, never mind the results. What Seattle doesn’t abide is active government that makes big, painful, costly, disruptive decisions. (Holding an Olympics, ponying up to save the Sonics, fixing a crumbling Viaduct.) Compounding this sentimental-government formula is Tim Eyman, who makes sure we don’t have the money for active government and also serves as a handy scapegoat and excuse. The outcome is the Seattle formula: Talk big, debate long, do little. Rinse, repeat.

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