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Seattle casts a lonely dissent on regional transportation planning

A train moves freight at the Port of Tacoma Credit: Courtesy Port of Tacoma

One of the most important organizations in Puget Sound is one that gets little public attention. The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is generally only in the news following a big vote or some other controversy generated by the elected officials who make up its four-county membership.

Recently, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn joined the mayor of Port Orchard, Lary Coppola, in opposing the PSRC’s Transportation 2040 Plan — albeit for very different reasons. They were the only elected officials to vote “no” out of a group of 32.

McGinn was not convinced that the plan did enough to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and was not heavily enough invested in transit. Port Orchard’s Coppola had concerns that the 2040 Plan was heavily influenced by King County and Seattle and didn’t reflect the needs of his constituents. In comments submitted by the city of Port Orchard, the plan was referred to as “arrogant” and needing to be “scrapped.” He also disagreed with the emphasis on tolling to pay for transit in addition to roads.

What gives? And what is the purpose of the Transportation 2040 Plan and why should we worry about it? After all, a large majority of the PSRC supports it.

First, we should care because the PSRC, as a federally recognized metropolitan planning organization, selects projects for federal funding — about $160 million each year, with two-thirds of that for transit. Second, the federal government requires regions to have a 20-year planning horizon as a precondition for receipt of federal transportation funds. The region’s current plan, Destination 2030, will not meet this key federal test beyond this year. And finally, this plan will help influence the next big state transportation funding push in the 2011 legislative session.

It also gives Seattle an easy opportunity to show that it can play well with others. Our friends in other cities and counties around Puget Sound &mdash with good reason &mdash sometimes feel we do not respect their opinions or care about their cities and neighborhoods.

The major roads projects in any transportation plan these days are the most controversial. But this plan smartly places the emphasis on strategic roads investments: maintain/replace existing infrastructure; complete projects that were started years ago and not completed; provide better connections between communities.

Consider two examples of projects in the Transportation 2040 Plan. First, Pierce County and the Port of Tacoma officials have been trying for years to get state route 167 completed. For the port, it would mean shorter and more efficient trips for trucks carrying containers to distribution centers in the Kent Valley. It would also dramatically shorten commute times for residents of Tacoma. Some transit advocates are claiming this is a road for cars and therefore a bad investment for the region. I would argue that this road for cars and trucks is exactly the kind of strategic investment that is needed for our future economic prosperity. Thirty out of 32 elected officials in the region seem to agree.

The other example is the South Park Bridge. This bridge is not only an essential freight corridor but a lifeline to the residents and businesses of South Park, in Seattle’s south end. The neighborhood is one of Seattle’s most diverse. Immigrants have settled in the community, opened small businesses, and are entrepreneurial and cultural assets for the entire region.

King County must close the unsafe South Park bridge in June, and some small businesses will fail as a result. Keep in mind here that 109 years ago another immigrant, John W. Nordstrom, opened a small shoe store in Seattle’s University District. It is smart to care about small businesses and help them thrive by making the public investments on which they depend.

SR 167 and the South Park Bridge were both in the Roads and Transit package that failed on the ballot a few years ago. (Mike McGinn, heading the local Sierra Club, was a leading opponent.) Admittedly, the package was huge and was reviled by those who thought it was too roads heavy and those who thought it was too transit heavy. There were also many who thought the taxes were just too much. It failed, and a subsequent Sound Transit-only measure passed in 2008. But that leaves funding roads still undone.

We are 30 years behind on building a regional light-rail system and continually argue over whether we need buses or trains. We need both. Just as we need bridges and roads for cars and bikes and sidewalks for pedestrians.

One thing is clear: The South Park Bridge would have been funded and the people of South Park would now have hope that their community would be secure. Instead they are facing economic isolation.

For SR 167, the people of Tacoma would finally get the long promised road to help foster job growth and keep traffic off rural roads, where big trucks don’t belong.

In a sense, we are starting over — again. The Transportation 2040 Plan continues to wind its way through the process. Many of us in the freight community don’t think the plan properly prioritizes investments in our infrastructure that are crucial to our competitiveness in international trade and the movement of goods. Others think there is not nearly enough emphasis on transit. Make no mistake, this is a compromise plan. It is designed to get approval from elected officials who are representing people from very different places with very different needs and priorities.

In fact, the plan increases transit service by 100 percent. It also advocates for tolling as a means of funding projects as gas-tax revenues continue to decline. The plan calls for 185 fewer miles of roadways than the current Destination 2030 Plan. And it provides strategies for dramatic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. There is much to like in the plan, but more importantly, the process itself makes us think regionally and strategically about how to be competitive in a changing world.

I work in international shipping, so I am reminded daily of the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014 when the ships currently too large to move through the canal will be able to travel through it on all-water routes from Asia to Gulf and East Coast ports, carrying cargo that currently must come through our West Coast gateways of LA/Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, and Vancouver and Prince Rupert, B.C. There is a perception that the West Coast of the United States is tied up in process and unable to move quickly in a competitive world. Other cities and countries are investing to capitalize on our local disadvantage.

We are 30 years behind on building a regional light-rail system and continually argue over whether we need buses or trains. We need both. Just as we need bridges and roads for cars and bikes and sidewalks for pedestrians. We should not singlemindedly focus on getting rid of cars. The cars of the future will depend increasingly less on petroleum and more on alternative energy sources. There should be no argument with the fact that we should drive less in more fuel efficient cars while relying more on transit in more densely developed communities.

King County recently received Recovery Act stimulus funding for charging stations for electric cars and we are in line to receive a portion of $99 million for an eTec/Nissan study — the biggest EV test ever.

There is no reason why we can’t be among the world leaders in this technology just as we have been in aerospace and software. Solid infrastructure, a highly skilled and educated workforce, preservation of industrial and rural land, and focused growth in the urban areas will help us attract the green technology and manufacturing of the future and the people who will do it.

The PSRC will play an ever-increasing role in these issues as a policy and data resource and as a forum where a larger view of the region is discussed and debated. Ultimately, most of the intractable problems Seattleites read about every day — transportation, education, the environment, homelessness, crime, and the economy — are regional issues that cannot be addressed in jurisdictional isolation.

We need choices in transportation and regional strategic investments. And we need to develop strong relationships throughout Puget Sound. The PSRC is our best shot, and we should work hard to make it work for all of us. Just saying “no” is no longer affordable.

The General Assembly of the PSRC will meet on May 20 for a final vote on the plan.

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