The perfect is the enemy of the good, or so they say. The $17.8 billion roads-and-transit package that will go to King, Pierce, and Snohomish county voters in a matter of days is clearly far from perfect. As King County Executive Ron Sims has noted, it won't replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct or the 520 floating bridge. It will cost a lot of money. It won't reduce congestion. It won't reduce our regional carbon footprint. Sims, who emerged belatedly as an opponent of Proposition 1, says that the costs exceed the benefits.
Still, many local politicians defend the proposal. The late Walt Crowley, in an essay published after his death, argued that it represented a significant and irreversible step away from the age of the internal combustion engine.
Could we do better, assuming the measure is defeated? Sims figures that regional officials can fix the eye-glazing but critical issue of regional transportation "governance" and come back to the people with something better. And what if they can't? One close observer suggests "we've got this package not because it's good, but it's the best they could put together politically. That's the basic pro vote: It's better than nothing."
But is it really better than nothing? No, says the Sierra Club Cascade Chapter's Tim Gould. "The current proposal, with respect to greenhouse gasses, makes things worse," Gould says. "It essentially blows out of the water any chance we have of meeting" the county's ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target, announced last July by the Sierra Club and a group of large American counties. Gould says "we've reached the point where we can no longer accept bad highway projects just to get good transit projects." If we're serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, he says, "we just don't get very far unless we can also reduce vehicle miles traveled."
The Cascade Chapter came out early as the only vocal opponent of Proposition 1. Sims and other skeptics kept their reservations to themselves, evidently hoping that the voters would reject the proposal on purely financial grounds. (Americans have always been reluctant to pay for transportation infrastructure. The historian Garry Wills, paraphrasing Henry Adams, writes that in 1800, "Americans' reluctance to submit to any requisitions on their own money made them put up with the terrible costs of bad roads or no roads rather than submit to paying turnpikes.")
Some of the arguments over Proposition 1 may be arcane, but most can be reduced to easy sound bites:
Build it and they will come. This is essentially the Sierra Club's argument. More lanes mean more driving, which in turn means more emissions of greenhouse gas. Instead, we need "lifestyle changes where people make it a point to live not so far from work."
Ending congestion is an illusion and perhaps a scam. Sims complains that Proposition 1 won't get rid of congestion soon enough and that other measures are less costly and likely to work sooner, such as congestion pricing and bus rapid transit.
The Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) Web site talks about reducing congestion. A recent performance audit commissioned by the state says that reducing congestion should be the main transportation priority for the Puget Sound region. It assumes congestion can be reduced. It recommends adding lanes, transit trips, car pooling, and telecommuting. Some of these recommendations are beyond the reach of conventional transportation policy. Some would clearly work. If you eliminate bottlenecks, traffic will move more freely.
But more lanes seldom mean less congestion - at least not for long. Neither do rails. Manhattan has great public transportation, but rush-hour Manhattan still has gridlocked streets. BART doesn't keep Bay Area freeways from being nightmares; it just enables hundreds of thousands of additional people to commute into downtown San Francisco every day. People know this, but they don't say it when they're trying to sell bonds.
Demand for highways tends to be elastic. If new lanes make driving more attractive, they will attract more drivers. And congestion is not the only issue – greenhouse gases being another important consideration not mentioned by the state audit.
On the other hand, there's no denying the bottlenecks on Highway 167 and the Highway 520 bridge, in particular. There's no use pretending that if nothing changes, drivers who have gone to the hinterland for relatively cheap housing will do anything but sit in traffic, motors idling, until they get to work or to the mall. And there's no use pretending that if the Viaduct collapses or the 520 bridge sinks, the region will get along just fine
Charge them and they will stay home. What Gould and a lot of other people would like to see is "congestion pricing," making drivers pay for the privilege of driving downtown during peak daytime hours. They've done it in London. They may do it in New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to charge every car $8 and every truck $21 for driving below 86th Street during the day. The state Assembly balked, and the plan faces an uncertain future, while a commission is studying the idea. If the feds kick in several hundred million dollars and both the Assembly and City Council approve, it may happen. Just in time. The hard-pressed subway system could use the money that congestion fees would generate. It will almost certainly raise fares before any congestion pricing system can go into effect.
You can tie congestion pricing directly to greenhouse gas reduction: Lower or eliminate the congestion charge for low-emission vehicles and raise it exponentially for vehicles that emit a lot of CO2. The London transportation authority currently proposes to eliminate the congestion charge for low emitters and more than triple it for vehicles at the top of the emission charts. The London plan would go into effect next year, and be reviewed in 2010.
Why not do congestion pricing here? There's no good reason, but if you want to make congestion pricing work, you have to do more than bar-code everybody's car and send out bills. First, you have to give people alternative means of transportation. London didn't just make people pay to drive downtown. The city bought 300 new buses and froze transit fares in advance. (In contrast, Sims' proposed 2008 budget would raise bus fares by 25 cents a ticket. A quarter isn't much, but it represents a stiff 16-2/3 percent increase for people who ride the bus during rush hour, and a doubling of the fare for elderly riders.)
Besides, working class people already rode public transportation in London. And downtown London retailers didn't really have to worry about shoppers just driving to the malls instead. None of the above holds true for Seattle. Make it harder to drive downtown and a lot of shoppers will just head for the malls. You can't just throw a cordon of congestion pricing around downtown Seattle. You'd have to cordon off the major alternatives, too.
Mark Hallenbeck, director of the University of Washington's Washington State Transportation Center, who wrote the congestion pricing study [1.1 MB PDF] that Sims has embraced, agrees. "You can't just do Seattle," he says. When he and his colleagues started, they looked at two alternatives. One involved drawing a circle of pricing around all the major retail and employment centers. That seemed too difficult. So they chose the other option: make people pay a toll to drive on any freeway in the area, and maybe impose extra fees within rings around downtown Seattle or other congestion centers.
Tolling would have a number of advantages, Hallenbeck says: It would make users pay for new concrete. It would force people to face the true cost of sprawl, balancing the lower cost of distant housing against the higher cost of infrastructure, rather than assuming the infrastructure is basically free. And it would depress demand enough so that new lanes might not produce more driving.
However, make it more expensive to drive and a lot of working class people forced by housing prices to live miles away may simply have to find other jobs. And where is the commitment to beef up public transportation before congestion fees start rolling in? Gould acknowledges the potential economic burden on workers who drive into the city for low-wage jobs. He says "we might even think of granting some baseline level of travel to low-income people" - something equivalent to utilities' "lifeline" rates for minimal use.
Hallenbeck acknowledges the problem, too. He suggests that one could, for example, enable low-income people to drive free from an hour before their shifts begin until an hour after their shifts end.
Don't build it and they will ride bicycles. Sidestepping a real decision on the Alaskan Way Viaduct may have created the illusion that all we have to do is stripe a few more bike lanes and we'll be Copenhagen. Don't believe it. I've visited Copenhagen. And I've ridden a bike in the Seattle area for many years. I'd love to see the area make more accommodation for cyclists, and for pedestrians, too. But I don't really believe that most of my fellow citizens will abandon their cars to peddle up the hills, in the rain, carrying groceries.
And I have a hard time believing that the local commitment to human-powered transportation consists of much more than lip service. Seattle paints white stripes along arterials and calls them "bike lanes" to lure neophyte cyclists onto the mean streets, but it does little or nothing to save those new riders from cars that turn through the bike lane, cars that pull into and out of parking spaces through the bike lane, car doors that open into the bike lane, delivery trucks that park in the bike lane, city utility crews that set up shop in the bike lane, or the cars and trucks that routinely run red lights. This is a familiar litany of cyclists' gripes. But I don't see the situation getting any better.
It's all land use. Transportation and land-use policy must reinforce each other. Rail transit won't carry enough riders to make much difference by itself, but it can help channel development into areas near stations, creating the kind of density within which transit becomes most attractive and efficient. Simultaneously, cities must discourage development in places that transit won't serve. Right now, "there's a complete discontinuity" between land-use and transportation planning, Hallenbeck says. "We've been teaching [coordinated planning] for 40 years. We haven't done a very good job of living it." There's "a lot of lip service paid" to the idea in the RTID proposal, Gould agrees, but "it isn't happening."
The issue of global climate change should transcend politics. So should a lot of other things. They don't. Maybe this is different. If we're really about to make our children and grandchildren guinea pigs in history's greatest unplanned experiment, maybe we should take our hands out of the pork barrel and try to figure out what will really work. But if it's not politics, what is it - theology?