Proposition 1 is as good as it's going to get

The roads-and-transit measure, expensive and flawed, is politically reasonable and pulls together the region. Defeat it and you have the same folks who cooked up this one producing Proposition 2. It's hard to see how a wiser expenditure of money is going to be formulated and approved.
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A light-rail train is towed through the downtown Seattle tunnel. (Sound Transit)

The roads-and-transit measure, expensive and flawed, is politically reasonable and pulls together the region. Defeat it and you have the same folks who cooked up this one producing Proposition 2. It's hard to see how a wiser expenditure of money is going to be formulated and approved.

Come election day, I'm going to take a deep breath and then vote for Proposition 1, the $18 billion (in 2006 dollars) roads-and-transit measure that has been tying everyone in knots. While I can well imagine a better package, I really can't foresee how the political players of this region could put Humpty Dumpty together again better, after a defeat. So if politics is the art of the possible, this proposal looks like the best possibility.

A first reason for supporting it is timing, a very big factor in all politics. We have a strong economy, so taxpayers are willing to vote to spend on things we normally put off, like infrastructure. There is a civic monkey on our backs from the defeat of the Seattle Monorail Project and plans for a waterfront solution to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, producing a desire to feel like the region can, at least once in a generation, actually do something big (besides building stadiums). We've got a Democratic hegemony in the state, which helps add some spending spine to the politicians and extracts money from the state and federal troughs. It's not going to get better than this, assuming we turn down the package and then try to pass a different one later.

My second reason, also psychological, is that passage of Proposition 1 will help create a good atmosphere for moving further along the line of sensible transit and other traffic solutions. The folks who brought us the measure after five years of hard bargaining ought to be encouraged, in my view. Certainly they rolled logs and hung ornaments on the Christmas tree. But that kind of regional brokering is a positive step toward more regional thinking and cooperation. It's been interesting to watch a new generation of political leadership emerge, figures like Julia Patterson of the King County Council, a resident of SeaTac who was raised on a small farm in South King County; Pierce County Council member Shawn Bunney, chair of the Regional Transportation Investment District; and Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, chair of the Sound Transit board.

None is from Seattle, you notice. In fact, the one clear Seattle leader, King County Executive Ron Sims, having led the effort on Sound Transit and perhaps sensing how un-Seattlecentric it was becoming, jumped ship. At any rate, we're way past due for some effective regional politics to come to maturity and not just defer to Seattle's wishes, and this is Act I. Nor can Seattle expect, in the wake of a defeat of Proposition 1, to have any more clout, as its percentage of the regional population shrinks each year and its clout in Olympia keeps diminishing.

Paradoxically, the alternative ideas to the roads-and-transit measure will have a better chance of being adopted if Proposition 1 passes. Passage will make it a lot easier for this new land-validated leadership to incorporate the next steps in a more rational transportation policy, such as tolls, bus rapid transit, vanpools, and bike lanes. They might be able to resolve the two big battles left unresolved in the package – the Highway 520 floating bridge and the Viaduct. And once rail transit gets rolling, debates about the proper routes usually fall away and the public starts enjoying the ride, creating an appetite for more transit and better service. So I like the prospects for a positively reinforcing upward spiral, with the region pulling together, suburban tax base being tapped for urban projects like light rail, and neither the rail advocates nor the highway huggers lining up to sabotage future votes.

By contrast, defeat would be ugly, inducing a very different kind of spiral. Politicians, once they stick their necks out this far, don't get all sweet and forgiving when they are defeated. They behave like the South after losing the Civil War – looking for scapegoats, hating the victors, blaming everyone else, contemplating revenge. There would be a kind of demolition derby among the diverse opponents of Proposition 1 as they try to forge an alternative, with the sore losers egging on the food fights. Not good (though fun for the media), and likely to lead to many years before we get a new package to vote on.

It's hard to imagine that our politics, after such a monumental defeat, would move to the sunny uplands. One reason is that the same folks who brought us Proposition 1, with all its lumps and compromises, will be the folks who would fashion Proposition 2. The political realities won't change (except for the worse). The highways folks, steaming in traffic jams, still have a veto over the transit folks, dueling over their technologies – and vice versa. The Legislature still has the last say over authorizing taxes, and they still are as gunshy as ever about tax-revolt figures such as Tim Eyman (doubtless more so after the taxpayers say no). So these are the folks who will suddenly have the courage and statesmanship to start imposing tolls, slicing off service to Pierce and Snohomish counties, and gambling on a surface solution for the Viaduct?

While we're talking the real world here, let me bring up a few other sobering facts of political life. There is a huge amount to do, owing to years of neglecting investments in roads and bridges and transit. There is very little federal money for it, even with Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks well positioned to mark some ears. The state has bowed out of its obligations, with both parties fearful of raising taxes, so the buck is passed to the central Puget Sound counties to do the plans, vote the taxes, take the heat. For these counties to pass a measure, all three have to feel rewarded (one reason the Sound Transit line extends unreasonably far south). None of this magically changes if Proposition 1 is defeated. It just gets meaner.

And so while I can sympathize with critics of Proposition 1 who propose a wiser expenditure of money for roads and transit, I can't honestly see how that plan would get proposed or enacted. But I can see how better ideas will be incorporated into the region, once the measure is passed and the politicians who crafted it feel some wind in their sails and the regional players gain confidence and trust in each other.

Lastly, as to the substance of the proposal, the package is largely a good one. It has geographic breadth, so it holds together a regional coalition even as it spreads its benefits a little too thinly and creates some temporary absurdities such as roads widened only part of the way. Both transit lines and highway fixes ratify investments in the major nodes of Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, SeaTac, and Northgate, reinforcing the centralizing planning of the region. You can reasonably criticize Sound Transit for benefitting Seattle's downtown disproportionately, as it does, but that is another way of continuing to say that it's important to keep a large and vibrant downtown where arts can thrive, entrepreneurs can rub elbows, cosmopolitans can live, and taxes can be generated to support social services. Widening Interstate 405 on the Eastside may not be the smartest move as regards the carbon tally, but it sure beats building an Interstate 605 through the outer suburbs.

Fixing the choke points on our highways and bridges may seem immoral because it lets drivers keep driving their evil cars. But it also helps fight sprawl, by keeping major employers closer inside the urban boundaries rather than throwing up their hands and moving to Moses Lake or Spanaway. A basic cause of sprawl is companies moving far out, to avoid congestion and to get cheaper land and the ability to move their trucks.

If you keep making congestion worse, you get a few people who move close to a job or switch to transit but a lot more people who vote with their feet. The way to get people to use transit is not to torture them, but to build good transit that is safe, frequent, fairly fast, and cheap. And you can't build transit by not building transit.


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