Transportation. It's always trouble.
And it's in the news.
The Seattle waterfront tunnel debate blew up again last week over the controversial signing of a draft supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, leading to a crisis between Mayor Mike McGinn (a tunnel skeptic) and the city council President Richard Conlin, a tunnel supporter. Conlin's defenders say, "It's the right thing to do"; his detractors compare him to Richard Nixon.
Unfortunately, that brouhaha tended to overshadow the city's choice of a top-notch design firm, James Corner Field Operations, to begin laying out a vision for the park that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a piece of urban planning that could have a major impact on the city for a century to come.
Sound Transit made headlines when it raised the possibility that it might (once again) delay extending light rail, this time south of SeaTac, due to revenue shortfalls.
And a lawsuit is before the Supreme Court, one that holds that putting light rail on I-90 violates the state constitution.
Bigger gribbles, however, are gnawing away at transportation regionwide. I was recently asked to speak to a transportation committee of the League of Women Voters to put some of these issues in a regional, historical and cultural context.
Rather than provide them with answers, I raised a series of seven questions about Seattle transportation that might help them navigate and assess the issues and roadblocks. Here they are:
1. Why is there so much emphasis on transportation? You would sometimes think there are no other issues in Seattle or the region as important as transportation. Roads, bikes, bridges, and trains seem to trump schools, arts, crime, education, environmental clean-up (Puget Sound), social services, neighborhood scale, heritage. We seem to have turned our lives over to traffic engineers.
We also seem to have forgotten putting any emphasis on not moving people around. Whatever happened to Bill Gates' Information Superhighway? Didn't his book The Road Ahead suggest a future with less emphasis on actual roads? Ironies abound, such as Microsoft's influence in banging through an expanded 520. And isn't it interesting that while we're supposed to be moving ideas around rather than people, the Gates Foundation (a Crosscut funder) used its clout and money to bend Sixth Avenue around their new headquarters? Give them the Uri Geller award!
2. Why is transportation rarely about transportation? A road isn't just a road; a pothole isn't a pothole, a bike lane isn't a bike lane. Each is either a step toward Utopia, or the Apocalypse, a move to stop global warming, or a key to staving off the city's imminent industrial collapse. Bikes save the planet, SUVs destroy it.
Transportation projects are about real estate, markets, who profits from access, and social engineering. Transportation projects are often prioritized for other than the stated reasons. Mike McGinn suggests moving on the seawall and is immediately suspected by city council members of trying to sabotage the tunnel. Mercer Mess fixers says they want to improve traffic, but move ahead even when consultants report the project will have minimal impact on traffic congestion. Calling it a South lake Union Beautification Project just won't sell.
People argue that rail will either destroy their business, or funnel it all to some other part of town. There are powerful agendas behind proposals and fueling both proponents and opponents. Arguments frequently become "pragmatism" vs. "Utopia," but often have nothing to do with either.
3. Why do we have a have 20th century appetite in 21st century reality? Crosscut writer Jordan Royer recently asked about transportation, "What century is this?" The answer: Not the 21st. We're still planning and spending like tomorrow limitless growth is inevitable. It's the kind of bubble thinking that gave rise to the real estate and dot-com bubbles, and subsequent collapses. We've yet to adjust our eyes and our stomachs to fiscal reality: that we can't keep using the credit card.
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