The myth of gridlock

The Puget Sound transportation mess might be all in our head.
Crosscut archive image.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle.

The Puget Sound transportation mess might be all in our head.

Transportation often defines our identity. In the early days of the shipping trade, Seattle was the portal to the Pacific and gateway to Alaska. With the rise of Boeing, we became the Jet City, the town that linked (and shrank) the world. In the late 1990s, we were known as a major stop on Bill Gates' information superhighway.

More recently, the conventional wisdom is that we're a town defined by gridlock, both real and political. Our transportation system is at the top of the civic to-do list, but, the complaint goes, we're not doing enough about it.

In practical terms, critics point out, we've been reluctant to embrace mass transit. Earlier this decade, Seattle voted for a citywide monorail system – 40 years after building the first demonstration project – then pulled the plug when the cost seemed too high and the financing scheme shaky. We cannot agree on the size or shape of a new Highway 520 bridge, the key road between Seattle and Microsoft. And in a vote earlier this year on the future of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, voters rejected both options on the ballot, a tunnel and a replacement for the tottering structure. For some, this no-no vote exemplified a city stuck in traffic.

Critics also point to governance. While we talk about Seattle, what we really mean is Pugetopolis, the vast commuter-shed of the central Puget Sound Basin (Olympia to Mount Vernon). We have no centralized authority that can tackle problems region-wide, thus many of the "fixes" are piecemeal and parochial.

As if that weren't enough, there is Tim Eyman, the insurgent initiative activist who pops up like Wile E. Coyote with various roadblocks – spending lids, rollbacks of the motor-vehicles tax – that have crimped the funding our roadrunners rely on. He'll have another antitax measure on the ballot this fall, Initiative 960.

As a result, some argue that indecision, inaction, and sabotage are stopping a dynamic city in its tracks.

But the fact is, such gridlock is mostly myth.

True, we didn't build mass transit a generation ago or expand the monorail, but our economy is doing exceptionally well. Regional growth is big and steady. The population of Pugetopolis (as of 2006) is 3.9 million, up 200,000 since 2000. Last year, the city of Seattle's growth rate was the highest since 1968. Our boom-and-bust cycles have mellowed and the economy has diversified. The skylines of Seattle and Bellevue are virtual forests of construction cranes.

In terms of transportation, the critics give us little credit for what we have done. Sound Transit is building light rail. Seattle is laying trolley tracks in South Lake Union. We've raised the gas tax. Long before the Minnesota bridge collapse, we voted new taxes to repair the city's roads and bridges. We've voted to expand Metro bus service. Our per capita gas consumption is the lowest in nearly 40 years, and transit ridership is up. Even traffic congestion, annoying as it is, is pretty much what you'd expect. Our average commute time ranks 16th in the country – the same ranking as the greater metro area's size – and are only five minutes longer than that of Raleigh, N.C., which ranks 48th in commute time.

The voters are shy of mega-projects, and sometimes we need to consider ideas more than once. But at worst such prudence is benign; at best such caution may actually be an important part of why we're flourishing. We've yet to sink too far into any Big Dig fiascos like Boston's.

In November, the voters of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties will have a chance to weigh in on a major roads and transit measure, Proposition 1.

It has two parts. One is called ST2 and provides funding for Sound Transit's second phase of light rail, extending it to North Seattle and the Eastside suburbs. The second is a Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) package that contains funds for expanding Interstate 405 and replacing the 520 bridge, among other projects. The price tag: a whopping $18 billion (critics say that, with interest and financing costs, it really will be twice that).

If the measures pass, RTID estimates that traffic speed will increase by 10 percent and delays will diminish by 25 percent, despite more growth. If true, that's significant, but hardly transportation's Second Coming. RTID executive board chair Shawn Bunney says this "is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to assure the prosperity of our region for decades to come."

History suggests that's hyperbole. If the roads and bridges measure fails, it's safe to predict policy-makers will be back with another package soon. What looks like gridlock is sometimes measured progress – without the hype.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.