Author Edward Abbey famously said that "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." It's also the underpinning of our region's economic assumptions. At some point, for the sake of the planet and Puget Sound, we're going to have to pursue a different future, one with fewer people and an alternative economic model.
But right now, the forces for growth have two missions: to build us out of a recession, and craft a more "sustainable" region. Worthy goals, but that's not what's actually happening. In the name of jobs and "recovery," we're pursing projects that are not sustainable. We're following the same 20th century, post-war roadmap that devastated the Puget Sound lowlands with traffic and sprawl. And we're trying to have it both ways, which is not affordable.
When it comes to the future of Pugetopolis, things are bleak for those who hoped for less pavement. If Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn worries about the gribbles eating away at the waterfront seawall, he's also right to be concerned about the monsters that roll through the region laying concrete. Unfortunately, that's where the regional momentum is.
The 520 bridge project is adding beef (capacity, height, width) to an earlier 1960s highway project that even Democratic King County Executive Dow Constantine concedes should probably have never been built. (Others think it was the making of modern Bellevue.) In Seattle, we're pursing a massive Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project that lays highway lanes through (and under) the city. And the Puget Sound Region Council, the four-county public-policy body that attempts to find a regional "vision" forward, has floated its Transportation 2040 plan, complete with at least eight major regional highway projects that voters have already declined. The price tag for these resurrected "zombie" projects is another $9 billion.
How do we pay for so many mega-projects, plus regional rail and other infrastructure investments? We pay with more growth that will require yet more building. This is the cancer syndrome Abbey warned about.
It is easy to argue that there is no "vision" for Puget Sound, but the PSRC and the business community clearly have one. Greens have tried to improve it by pushing for rail and transit, but so far these are expensive add-ons that are a form of mitigation in response to the underlying disease. If you rebuild 520 with light-rail capacity, it becomes more acceptable to greens, but also wider, and more expensive, and will possibly contribute only a kind of pricey symbolism. (Sound Transit, which runs our regional rail system, doesn't even want to run rail there.) Paradoxically, the wider bridge might end up carrying more cars if rail is delayed or never built there. Making the bridge rail-friendly symbolizes the unsustainable burden of trying to please everyone: It could actually make the project worse because it could solve little or nothing at greater cost.
The fact is, a 21st century solution would either be to right the wrong of the 1960s by removing the bridge, or replacing it with a slim one devoted mostly to transit and commercial traffic. A wide road-rail hybrid will cost a lot, but won't repair the mistakes of the freeway era. Why would we want to double down on a highway that should never have been built? Constantine argues that we have to because we have to serve the communities that have grown to rely on it and that we have to transition slowly to a more sustainable development model. This argument, extrapolated throughout the region, essentially means we can't say no to much of anything that threatens the status quo.
McGinn argues for a vision that is more environmentally sustainable: more density, more mass transit. But such a vision is undercut if it makes too many compromises with the PSRC view of the world
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