The Cascadia Center has been affiliated with the Discovery Institute, known for its advocacy of "intelligent design." Cascadia has balanced Discovery's charter because its expertise is "unintelligent design," namely regional transportation. Everyone agrees those problems are man-made.
Cascadia was founded in the 1990s to push a regional agenda aimed at infrastructure and economics in the larger region, and especially focusing on the Vancouver-to-Eugene corridor. They urge high-speed rail, freight mobility, they even helped cook up the downtown tunnel as an Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement option. Bruce Agnew, a former staffer for onetime Republican Congressman and Seattle City Councilman John Miller, runs Cascadia, and the group has been partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They're now looking at a more distant relationship with Discovery, which will likely make some potential funders more comfortable, especially greens for whom anti-science conservatism is anathema.
The bigger picture is that the Cascadia Center has been a less airy-fairy advocate of regional coordination and cooperation. It emphasizes Cascadia's joint economic clout as opposed to its green-corner-of-the-world feel. Cascadia as an economic zone, not an isolated Ecotopian Alamo. The center has been concerned with how to get people and goods, and ideas, back and forth across the Canadian border, for example.
Agnew, at a recent meeting with Crosscut staff, talked at length about lessons that can be imported from British Columbia, where public-private partnerships (P3's in transpo jargon) have helped build highways, bridges, hospitals, and schools. This in "socialist" Canada. There are opportunities here too, especially if banks and investment funds get more active and the gap between public funding and infrastructure appetites continues to grow. The 520 bridge is a couple billion dollars short: Could the private sector step in and win a contract to manage it, with the inevitable tolls, to the benefit of both public and private interests? Could public employee or union pension funds invest in such projects to make a reasonable return and keep their people in jobs? Cascadia originally envisioned the downtown tunnel as a P3.
There are plenty of other, smaller opportunities for P3s as well, including some kind of multi-use redevelopment of Colman Dock on the Seattle waterfront. The ferry system might be an ideal agency to experiment with them, matching need (new docks and terminals) with amenities for tourists, commuters, maybe even housing. Why not?
One of the biggest barriers to progress in transportation is balkanization, and Puget Sound is a poster child. It's tough, says Agnew, to do even simple stuff that can make a difference. The ORCA card? That no-brainier took only took eight years and $35 million, Agnew said. There are plenty of arbitrary boundaries here that impact our ability to move broadly and nimbly. It's an old complaint, but it's a real one: we have too many cooks in the kitchen; our process fetish leaves many opportunities for parochial monkey-wrenching. He points to the example that along Highway 99, each city has a separate contract with different companies to manage the traffic lights. Instead of having synchronized traffic signals along its length, let alone smart lights that read and adjust lights in real time to traffic levels, the corridor is more of a bottleneck than need be. Imagine the savings in time, congestion, and pollution if it something as simple as traffic lights were coordinated?
Creating a new regional governance system for Puget Sound always raises big fears and suspicions. Back in the 1950s and '60s when Metro was formed, it was portrayed a kind of spider at the center of a Big Government web. Many suburban cities opted out, and the water cleanup was eventually limited mostly too Lake Washington, but the larger plan, which would have included lakes and sewage systems throughout the region, was whittled down. Local opt-outs and funding based on location rather than need are also problems. Regional government and planning reform are shot down by local interests, fear of big government, and distrust of Seattle.
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