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The Cascadia conundrum: Balkanized transportation

Puget Sound is a poster child for the problems of regional transportation planning. One big roadblock: long-standing distrust of Seattle.

The Bellevue skyline.

The Bellevue skyline.

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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Comments:

Posted Tue, Oct 4, 5:49 a.m. Inappropriate

The distrust of Seattle is justified by the dominance and behavior of the "other" regional council, the King County Council by Seattle Centric legislators. The population has grown in the Suburbs, but the actions to drive developement back into the urban centers and to make rural communities "Densify" Seattle style via GMA and CAO has stolen the ability of communities to develope their own character and identity.

Knute wrote "Instead of being bossed around by Seattle, many suburbs have simply been turning into Seattle, becoming more dense, more diverse, and better places for starving artists to find vital immigrant communities, cheap housing, and work space." I believe the facts prove exactly the opposite.

Cameron

Posted Tue, Oct 4, 5:59 a.m. Inappropriate

It would be good to know who is paying Cascadia's bills. It often appears to be a front group for people who will profit from things like small diesel trains, foot ferries and drawing up private deals to build public infrastructure.

It had $10 million from the Gates Foundation - which was also used to pay bills for Discovery. That was 10 years ago. What happened with all that money? Will Cascadia get more?

At one time Discovery and Cascadia were opponents of the Sound Transit, a true regional government with a specific regional purpose. If they really want to make Seattle more like Portland, a good first step might be to get the trains and the buses under the same roof, like in Portland.

Now might be a good time to do that because all the transit agencies are hurting and seeking ways to do more with less.

Jan

Posted Tue, Oct 4, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

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?

Fascinating. I'd always assumed that 99, as a state highway, was run by, well, the state. No idea that whatever funding the state provides does not extend to traffic signaling projects.

Posted Tue, Oct 4, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

This is an excellent article, and it highlights many "Seattle issues" that residents of the Queen City are bound to reject indignantly. However, for those of us in The Rest of the State, these issues are axiomatic.

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Oct 4, 12:44 p.m. Inappropriate

So the solution is more un-elected boards like Sound Transit? Ie taxing authority but no accountability?

GaryP

Posted Tue, Oct 4, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate

dbreneman,
you need to recognize the distinction between "Seattle issues" and "Seattle residents," who, if we are talking in large round numbers, are for the most part asleep about not only their own issues but those of the rest of the state.

I'd venture few residents anywhere know about the Regional Council's Vision 2040—the official regional response to state growth management mandates—let alone that the new vision abandoned the far less hegemonic Vision 2020. Crosscut writer MacDonald inspired this now out of date response from PSRC: "the interim results should not be surprising, in that the Regional Growth Strategy was understood to be a long-term commitment to 'bend the trend.'"

What results? "At the regional geography level, in most counties, recent growth in the Metropolitan Cities, Core Cities and Larger Cities falls short of the 17.5 percent mark, and while growth in the Small Cities, Unincorporated Urban Growth Areas and Rural areas exceeds the mark."

These stale 2000-2007 numbers remain the only official recognition that bending the trend takes progress on the real forces and issues that set people and jobs down where they do and don't. Who'd know to look in Appendix IIA here: http://psrc.org/growth/vision2040/background

The 2010 census numbers have been available for a long time. Does reluctance to issue a new benchmark mean the trends are still not bending Vision 2040's way and what we don't know won't hurt us?

afreeman

Posted Tue, Oct 4, 9:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow, where to start with this article? Let's start with using union pensions to fund public projects.

From the article:
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 public private partnership.

You've GOT to be kidding. Can you imagine asking for a toll increase on 520 with the unions as the investment bank? The conservative road warriors would have a field day with this one, demonizing the unions to their hearts content.

Regarding the public private partnerships, there is nothing magical about this P3s. The monorail tried this trick when it was supposedly trying to build a citywide monorail. The practical effect was that this was used to hide the bid from the public for 9 months. It was also used to deceive that public by saying the monorail would cost less, when in fact it wound up costing alot more.

Posted Tue, Oct 4, 9:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute and the Cascadia Institute should be careful what they wish for. In New York, we have an 'integrated' governance infrastructure with the CEO of the MTA answering to the governor. And the Port Authorities control all of the bridges and roadways in the bi-state area. Sounds great huh?

Well, not so fast. The Ports proposed and implemented huge toll increases this year, with tolls rising from $8 to $15 by 2015. When this hit the press, the governors of both NY and NY pretended to act shocked as if they had no knowledge of this rate hike. And the AAA is now suing.

AAA sues Port Authority over recent toll hikes
http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/09/aaa_sues_port_authority_over_r.html

You see, this regional governance structure is about as unaccountable as you can get. They're using these rate hikes to finance the new World Trade Center which is wildly over budget. So $11 BILLION in tolls are going to a building project in Lower Manhattan. Thus, the lawsuit from the AAA.

Here's an article I wrote on governance reform for Crosscut back in 2008:

Why governance reform for local transit would not work
http://crosscut.com/2008/04/16/sound-transit/13173/Why-governance-reform-for-local-transit-would-not-work/

Posted Wed, Oct 5, 11:29 a.m. Inappropriate

"afreeman" writes: "you need to recognize the distinction between 'Seattle issues' and 'Seattle residents,' who, if we are talking in large round numbers, are for the most part asleep about not only their own issues but those of the rest of the state."

If I was unclear, by "Seattle issues" I was not talking about issues which effect or interest residents of Seattle, but the issues that Seattle and its residents cause for those of us living in The Rest of the State (such as the irrational desire of many in the city to cut a big chunk out of SR-99).

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Oct 5, 4:49 p.m. Inappropriate

dbreneman, thanks for the clarification, but your example does not seem to fit the complaint. How can an admittedly drawn-out democratic process that got you what you wanted in the end (no big chunk out of SR-99 at least for those who can afford the toll) be an issue that Seattle AND its residents cause for those living in the Rest of the State? What might have worked better is if you had said that Seattle and its residents are content with uncoordinated traffic lights all along SR-99 both north and south of the city center (apparently Seattle"s responsibility).

I stand corrected if your complaint was not about the powers that be in Seattle defending its fleeting hegemony with self-important claims to state expenditures and the passage of laws that reduce residents' rights. There is no comparison as to the comparative weight of the powers that be and the residents in such contests, which is why the residents who do pay attention are not that interested in making the imbalance worse.

Possibly your complaint was the other Rest of State complaint, Cameron's— the desire to be left alone and the population growth dumped upon density happy Seattle. It is true in this case that the Rest of the State would be against Seattle residents foot dragging, if so it is important to know that the opposite of what is desired is taking place—trend-bending from on-high takes economics in its favor.

afreeman

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