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Why is transportation in the driver's seat?

Seven questions about Seattle's transportation obsession — the one that has Mayor McGinn and the city council fighting furiously over a signature on a piece of paper.

Link Light Rail in the downtown tunnel

Link Light Rail in the downtown tunnel Sound Transit

The 520 bridge-replacement project: a headline-grabbing example of infrastructure

The 520 bridge-replacement project: a headline-grabbing example of infrastructure WSDOT

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.

We also learned that the Elliott Bay Seawall can withstand a direct hit from a water taxi. At least the gribbles, the little creatures nibbling away at the pilings, haven't won yet!

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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Comments:

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 7:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Why is transportation in the driver's seat?

Because social engineers have seized on it as a way to push a political agenda.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 8:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Fascinating piece! I'd add that we are a city of engineers, thanks to Boeing and Microsoft, and so those slide rules tend to come out and shape local political disputes. Better to argue about road configurations than whether anti-poverty programs are working. My second observation is that Seattle is hung up on cars because it's in a perpetual war against the suburbs, the realm of cars. The city has always worried that it's not really a city (too small, too far from LA and New York, too young), so we make ourselves feel like a city by bashing those sub-cities. Real cities don't bash their metro regions, I might add.

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 9:36 a.m. Inappropriate

"The idea that we need a downtown tunnel in order to hide traffic, instead of, say, a new soaring elevated that could be inspiring on its own, seems both foolish and expensive. We shouldn't be paying extra to bury our lack of imagination."
--
You know, Knute, that's heresy to the Green Taliban that thinks it speaks for the rest of us. But it had to be said.

ivan

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 9:38 a.m. Inappropriate

A portion of the article lumps high speed rail improvements in with some of the unfunded transportation proposals. "On top of these are proposals for light rail to Ballard and West Seattle, high-speed train service between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, the need to fully fund Metro transit service, and a legislature that wants more roads in Pugetopolis."

Earlier this year, Washington state was selected to receive $590 million in federal High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail grants. As a result of this funding, Amtrak Cascades passengers will see two additional daily round trips between Seattle and Portland, for a total of six. Results will also include travel time reduction, improved service reliability and on-time performance. These funded projects will have real benefits for people and businesses traveling between the two cities. For more information about this program, visit: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Funding/stimulus/passengerrail.htm

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

I was impressed with your suggestion that a viaduct might actually be a solution was interesting and i'd like to hear you explore and expand on the idea.

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 10:04 a.m. Inappropriate

I recently read about the Incas' abundance of unneeded transportation projects in Charles Mann's 1491. Supporters of projects such as SoundTransit expansion, the waterfront tunnel, and the 520 replacement would obviously question the appropriateness of an analogy to the Incas, but I do think that it is good to ask what we need these projects for, as you do.

My view is that we do indeed need the infrastructure to move larger volumes of people and freight, justifying all three of these projects as important investments in the region's future economic vitality. People are moving into the Puget Sound region, particularly the cities outside of Seattle, and are projected to continue doing so for many years to come. This is not a choice or an "ideology of growth", but merely a reality which we can choose to deal with or not to deal with. Likewise, if you do believe in The Road Ahead as a vision for the region's economic future, then does it not follow that global trade, and hence substantial investments in the Port's capacity, are a part of that vision?

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Good piece. As someone who lived in Boston, NY, DC and LA before returning home to Seattle 10 years ago, I can attest that local transportation congestion is minimal compared to that experienced in those metro areas. We are not at some transportation crisis point.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct and Evergreen Point Bridge must be replaced or
retrofitted because they represent a threat to public safety. We are nearly 10 years late in dealing with them.

We have a totally unneeded Allentown trolley, from downtown to South Lake Union, to feed Vulcan Inc.'s desire for such a link (and with a bit of
tourist-appeal trolleyism thrown in). It has been running near empty since Day One. We are beginning a First Hill streetcar system not to meet any particular transportation need. Existing buses could do it.

Sound Transit light rail actually will cost far more than the $18 billion sum you cite. The three-county system now being planned---which includes
retrofitting the I-90 bridge for light rail---will take many years of capital construction. At the end of the period, congestion will not be reduced---same as with the Mercer Mess redo. The transportation need could be met immediately with simple and far less costly expansion of existing bus service.

We should not underestimate the degree to which these projects are driven by the economic self-interest of powerful local players---the Mercer Mess redo and trolley for Vulcan; light rail to feed the ST bureacracy, contactors and sub-contractors, law firms, financial and p.r. firms, and unions which feed at the light rail trough---and who keep campaign money coming to the elected officlals who support light rail.

Badly missing in all of this are elected officials, at federal, state, and local level, with the capacity to examine priorities and options and, then, to choose those in the public interest.

Transportation should not be consuming such a disproportionate amount of local energy and resources. Much is being driven not by public need but
by the voracious appetities of those who benefit financially from transportation projects.

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 10:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Great questions Knute. I yearn for answers as I recall my gruelling Saturday as it took me more than 45 minutes to drive from the Central District to Ballard via Wallingford (usually a 25-minute trip.) It was a little depressing, but hey, I'm over it.

Here's a couple unoriginal thoughts:
1) Our beautiful geography complicates our corridors, creating lots of bottlenecks as we funnel into bridges or thoroughfares to get across and around our lakes. It will always be this way, no?
2) As you note, our multifarious transit authorities seems to add more complexity to the regional transportation challenge. Better regional coordination / authority seems to be at least a partial answer.
3) We fancy ourselves a world-class city. Well, we have world-class potholes, that's for sure!

What can we learn from other cities that take more diverse approaches to moving people? Why are we wedded to big buses that drive around half-empty most of the day (on many routes) and are prone to clogging up city intersections during rush hour? Some cities around the world use more vans or jitneys -- smaller vehicles that are a little quicker and more nimble. Seems like these would be appropriate in some places.

joe

jsperry

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 12:10 p.m. Inappropriate

On author Berger's point about moving ideas instead of people:

Ongoing research from academics continues to suggest that the Internet, cell phones, and other forms of telecommunications stimulate the physical movement of people to a greater degree than substituting for it, which was the case for dial telephones and CB radio earlier.

Think of Expedia, Travelocity, meet-ups based on texting and Tweeting, and dating websites encouraging travel near and far. Online freeway cameras and computer-coordinated electronic signs on smart highways smooth the way. Satellite radio provides ad-free background music while sitting in traffic.

The Internet is more about arranging travel and making it efficient, rather than suppressing travel over all. The exception is corporate long distance travel being a bit suppressed with web-conferencing and video, especially in a recession.

Bill Gates once called the Microsoft campus a high-bandwidth environment for professionals interacting and sharing ideas, a concept important for other organizations, such as Gates Foundation, with healthy team functioning. The employees want to be there most of the time, and not telecommuting more than occasionally.

Berger's point that "we're supposed to be moving ideas around rather than people" hasn't panned out for the human animal that is us. We do both.

jniles

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 12:24 p.m. Inappropriate

jniles: that's a very intriguing idea, and I have never heard it before. Do you have a link to some specific research on how telecommunications are increasing travel? I would be very interested in looking at some of that.

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 1:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Incompetence, corruption, sabotage. As much as I use these words to describe what I see wrong with Seattle's transportation systems and planning, they are not "easier" to use as Knute suggests. I've explained specific shortcomings of Link LRT, monorail, streetcar, trolleybus and regular bus transit system designs and design proposals in detailed layman's terms at length and often but rarely will Seattle's knee-jerk transit advocates respond to such analysis other than with unkind words mixed with amateurish drivel. I can argue Link extension to Federal Way and a spur through Southcenter to Renton have more potential than U-Link. I can justify Link on the 520 sinking bridge. I still believe monorail could work to West Seattle, Ballard and beyond. I've explained how to expand the trolleybus system and maximimze efficiency at low cost. I've laid it out over the years for any reader to consider but most won't give it two seconds of competent thought. I've submitted detailed drawings to agencies whose obligation to such public submissions is just as rudely dismissive.

Incompetence, corruption, sabotage. A waterfront viaduct was always a poor engineering choice. Perhaps it's excusable for its time, but not now. The only AWV replacement option that's worse is the DBT. How is it that WSDOT can make fools of so many people? Incompetence, corruption, sabotage. The people of the State of Washington and City of Seattle deserve better from their elected officials and appointed department directors. Mayor McGinn is right to oppose the DBT.

Recently, I've come to agree with Mayor Mike (in part) on the Mercer West project. I now see why the Broad Street Underpass should be decommissioned. Still, I can only support rebuilding Mercer Street between 5th and 9th Aves N at 4-lanes (NOT 6-lanes) plus the left-turn for access to 6th Ave and the southbound on-ramp to SR99 leading to the Battery Street Tunnel, NOT the DBT. I would explain, but I don't find it "easier" to annoy the incompetent and the corrupt with analysis.

Seattle is set in such amazingly beautiful landscape. Too bad it's abused and polluted. Don't pretend tourists up close don't see reality hidden behind the PR hype.

Wells

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 2:35 p.m. Inappropriate

No other proposed configuration for the AWV matches the existing viaduct in any transportation related category. The rights of ways already exist. The configuration already can handle 110,000 vehicles a day. It already provides a bypass for downtown and off ramps for the core, Ballard and West Seattle. It already meets the demands for commercial vehicles. It can incorporate modern seismic protections and other enhancements for noise abatement, bikes, pedestrians and aesthetics. It acknowledges the fact that rubber-tired, multi-passenger vehicles are still the choice of over 90% of us. And it’s billions of dollars cheaper than this present mistake in the making.

Any solution that doesn’t provide at least the capacities and transportation features of the existing viaduct is a waste of money and a giant step backwards for the region. There is a scramble on now to start demolition before common sense results in some honest public review. This wrong-headed march to destroy the viaduct to create a billion dollar park and make shift tunnel for one neighborhood is incredibly irresponsible during this time of rising layoffs, reduced operating hours, and budget cuts for social, community health and emergency services.

It’s too bad that Frank Chopp traded away his preferred solution of an elevated shared use structure for the AWV, so he could get a billion dollar tunnel under his neighborhood. He possibly had the horsepower to allow an elevated concept to receive an honest assessment.

jmrolls

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 3:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Ivar's appears willing to do its part regarding the sustainability and vibrancy of a fully functional Alaskan Way Tunnel. Slated for 2023, the Ivar's tunnel drive-thru: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOSTSnI-w7I.

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 4:33 p.m. Inappropriate

The elephant in the room here- and I'm surprised that such accomplished journalists and long-term residents as Knute and Ted Van Dyk haven't noticed this- is the 50-year freeway and road-building binge to convert farmlands into suburbia.

Yes, amazing as it may seem, land developers actually lobbied in Olympia (with a whole-hearted chorus of cement companies, car dealers, homebuilders, and shopping mall retailers) to get roads built to vacant low-priced land.

Combined with the federal mortgage interest deduction on the income tax, it spurred suburban development. And now you have your installed base, but you also have skeptics. As it becomes plainer even to the dullest of intellects that global warming is real, you have more people wondering how many of those simple 'solutions' of the past are suitable for the future.

And then you have your pure BS angle. Knute has written three pages without discussing the basic issue, but somehow manages to take potshots along the way at a surprising variety of targets- even the Incas don't escape being woven into the fabric- but- fabric of what?

Transportation is something most of us do every day, and something most of us believe affects the value of our home, the wage we can earn, how much free time we have, and how much money we have. At any time the price of fuel could double, and when that happened recently, the economy had a cardiac arrest and had to be artificially resuscitated.

Why would this not be number one on our list of concerns? That's why transportation is in the driver's seat.

Posted Tue, Sep 28, 11:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Berger's sixth point could be emphasized more. Maintenance and basic infrastructure are starved in favor of the mega projects. It is worse than stated; he left out the $2 billion needed to rehab I-5 in Seattle, the $1 billion needed to add sidewalks to the north Seattle arterials that lack them, additional pavement management, a new Magnolia Bridge, and a new South Park Bridge.

We have done this before. In the first half of the 20th century, the streetcar network was allowed to fall apart, as its farebox revenue alone could not meet bond payments, operations, and maintenance. in 1940, the electric trolleybus network replaced it, but by 1970, it too was allowed to fall apart with too little subsidy and maintenance.

We suffer from tax aversion at all levels of government. The federal gas tax could use a $2 per gallon increase. The recent state gas tax increases have gone to expansion and have not been shared with the local governments. Perhaps a brocolli candidate is required; eat it because it is good for you.

the health of Puget Sound is related to transport via the connection between the limited access highways induced sprawl and non point pollution.

transport issues draw our attention as they and land use and the economy are firmly linked. some say land use = transportation. time = money is similar.

a new paradigm in transport is called for to address global warming and the coming increases in petroleum prices. The 21st century is not time to build 1950s highways.

partial solutions include a significant gas tax increase and systemwide dynamic tolling for both revenue and demand management on all the limited access highways of King County.

but there is plenty of disfunction in other sectors. we are in a prolonged recession. K-12 education is under funded. all three levels of government are in fiscal crisis.

we have governments designed in the 19th century to be weak. the governments must work together or fail.

eddiew

Posted Wed, Sep 29, 7:40 a.m. Inappropriate

From a comment above: "We suffer from tax aversion at all levels of government." What a crock. All levels of government crave taxing. They've found that transportation issues afford an effective means of obtaining vast amounts of new tax revenues - far more than what their peers confiscate.

It’s fair to say transportation issues here are very different than in other regions, and not in good ways. What’s truly unique about what’s happening here is how abusive transit financing practices are, in terms of harming individuals, families and the economy.

What Knute failed to list in that piece was how poorly managed the overlapping transit services providers here are, especially when it comes to financing bus and train services. It’s as if he thinks Metro and ST don’t have peers against which they should be compared. He’s echoing the “we’re special” refrain heard far too often around here from civic figures.

Compare the costs to the people and families here to the costs to the people and families in the greater Portland region – anyway you look at it we are getting screwed in the name of buses and trains:

- Progressive taxing of businesses there, vs. regressive taxing targeting families and individuals here.

- TriMet will collect about $250 million in taxes this year, vs. the transit taxing in the Puget Sound region will be about $1.3 billion this year.

- Minimal debt for all kinds of transit and most of the capital costs are covered by federal grants there, vs. $8 billion in bonds secured by $80 billion or so in sales tax collections (with minimal federal grants) just for Sound Transit here.

- A couple of billion dollars of a reasonable mix of federal grant money and progressive tax revenues used to build out a 50-some mile light rail system there, vs. a $100 billion mostly-regressive local tax revenue package to pay for the same number of miles of track, and fewer stations, here.

- $0 direct regressive taxing targeting individuals and families for bus and train service there, vs. $455 per year direct regressive taxing on the average family for bus and train service, with that amount growing every year for decades, here.

As far as effectiveness and results go, there they have the 7th highest percentage of commuters using transit, and here we have the 13th highest percentage of commuters using transit.

None of those differences can be attributed to the excuses invariably trotted out (“they build rail at street level and we elevate and tunnel” and “we have a somewhat larger geographical area and population”).

Those gross disparities are not an anomaly. Pick any peer region running buses and developing light rail systems - the Twin Cities, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver - it doesn’t matter which one. No peer’s leadership abuses people and manages transit as poorly as the government managers here. They are not behaving reasonably with respect to the financial interests of people subject to their power.

crossrip

Posted Wed, Sep 29, 11:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Serial catowner observes that the price of fuel could double at any time. That seems downright optimistic when one considers that the only reason that Americans, 5% of the world, still manage to consume 20 to 25% of its oil, is that these things called dollars are still of some value. Considering how they are now being created at an ever faster rate - you can almost hear the mighty roar of the presses in the other Washington from here - I wouldn't count on them holding that value forever.

The light rail and transit skeptics never tire of pointing out how few people ride them at present. That will change in a heartbeat when the world stops believing that dollars are worth trading for oil. We will lament our lack of preparation for that day.

Posted Thu, Sep 30, 9:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Pepper2000: On telecom and travel relationship:

http://www.globaltelematics.com/mediachoice/

http://www.its.ucdavis.edu/telecom/publist.html

jniles

Posted Sat, Oct 2, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

I have lived here since 1986 and I have seen time and time again that some Big Budget construction was going to "save the city".

First it was the bus tunnel. Well, I look at the surface avenues in downtown, and for most of the day they are empty. Even during rush hour, and given the tunnel backups, I don't really see the efficiency. Plus you have to light, heat, and maintain tunnel stations, when a simple curbside stop does the same job.

Next it was the stadiums and "SODO". The Kingdome was one of the best and most efficient public structures ever built. But they destroyed it during heat of the one (and only) winning Mariners season (funny how that happened) because SODO would turn into a new Chelsea. Several knife fights later, it hasn't happened.

Oh, then it's Light Rail. It would transform the slums of Soberg into Kensington Square...if only anyone rode it...and bought condos there.

Oh yeah, I forgot Belltown...and Pioneer Square.

Now it's the waterfront and the tunnel.

How many times are we going to be called to pay billions for some project that promises faster, better, and end up with yet another boondoggle and the same smell of urine on the sidewalks, higher parking prices and another losing season.

jabailo

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