The ink is hardly dry on the big viaduct decision, yet everyone understands that the mire around the project will continue at least through the legislative session and then perhaps until another citizen vote. New as well as old points of contention are piled up from every 'êwhat about me?'ê constituency. And the financing obstacles are huge, even if the design decision had pleased everyone, which clearly it didn'êt, whether or not it should have.
And here'ês another problem. The viaduct theater-without-end drama is reinforcing, not helping, our biggest obstacle in improving the region'ês transportation. We are addicted, as the viaduct process shows, to planning our transportation future from an a la carte menu of one-off projects, not an overall plan.
Citizens in the Puget Sound region are fed up with the transportation mess. They see the system teetering on the brink of dysfunction. Meanwhile, politicians and transportation activists seem only prepared to tinker with the system in pieces, not attack the picture as a whole. It is painfully evident that there is no transportation plan for the Puget Sound region that brings the most desperately needed projects and services into an integrated program geared for action and tied to a real-world financial scenario.
Meanwhile, plans for various projects swim in and out of focus in the headlines — and the cost numbers swirl ever higher. Ordinary citizens can be excused for having lost faith that the politicians (or the activists) understand or care about the difference in tax spending between a million dollars, a hundred million dollars or a billion dollars. Spin and turf are the foremost political concerns. Political accountability for results, or their lack, is nowhere to be found.
Consider, for example, that the powers-that-be have signed up for a multi-billion-dollar viaduct plan even as moves are afoot for a $600 million retro streetcar system, consisting of a few miles of poorly defined reach into a handful of Seattle neighborhoods. Yet at the same time, the Seattle budget for 2009 is to re-pave just 24 lane miles of Seattle arterials (at that pace, each of the 1,500 arterial lane miles would be resurfaced every 60 years or so), and build just 15 blocks of new sidewalks in neighborhoods that have been waiting for decent streets for decades. How can those plans, or non-plans, all be squared?
Of course, there is a way that the new viaduct plan might fairly be called a masterstroke and a bargain. Its price tag for an important highway, streets, a new seawall, and earthquake-proof utilities for downtown (plus a new waterfront and the end of the viaduct safety risk) is under $5 billion. That'ês less than the price voters have endorsed for taking out two lanes for buses, cars, and trucks on the I-90 floating bridge to Bellevue in favor of light rail, so that just 10,000 people a day can be added to the level of Eastside transit ridership that would be there in any case by 2030.
That increase from light rail to the Eastside is a drop in the ridership bucket considering that public transportation across the region will be trying to carry more than 500,000 people a day. And remember, much of that increase in public transportation we still have no idea today how we'êll pay for — except for a modest infusion of promised help from the viaduct project.
Our current fixation with one-off solutions produces this long list: a new waterfront tunnel soon, a new light rail system sometime, a new SR 520 bridge whenever, a few fixes to I-5 perhaps, bus rapid transit routes someday, maybe even a (back to the) future monorail, and one day some highway widening we need and some we don'êt if our goal is to encourage better land uses patterns. All this will, unfortunately, deliver us exactly what we deserve. We'êll get, at best, a jumble of projects that haven'êt been planned or prioritized in relation to one another. And diverting all that money to these projects means we'êll likely see continued neglect of the ordinary streets, sidewalks, and workhorse bus and electric trolley lines that must also be taken care of and improved if we want a serviceable transportation system.
There's also a big fiscal cost-disadvantage in this way of doing business. When projects are planned piecemeal and every turn of policy must be steered by consensus, the costs really skyrocket. The viaduct plan is expensive but we all know it'ês just a preview of the SR 520 (Evergreen floating bridge) consensus process, which will yield a project price tag probably a billion dollars in excess of its old 'êfirm'ê budget. And there has never been a clear, complete, and agreed plan to pay for any version of the SR 520 replacement price, old or new.
Now, imagine how refreshing and revealing a regional plan would be. Citizens could ask: What do we have to fix and what do we have to build? How will the sum of the projects actually help the everyday needs of people and businesses to get around? When and how can we expect to see the whole system perform more effectively than it does today?
We could also get an answer to an overarching question about what an overall plan would propose to invest in. Are we wisely capturing new technology and innovation to build a transportation system that conserves energy and serves tomorrow'ês job economy? Or are we still trapped in yesterday'ês thinking — building roads for cars of obsolete design to neighborhoods with unsustainable energy footprints and connecting transit systems into job centers that are miles away from job growth? And are we improving our vast paid-up asset of existing transportation corridors and right-of-way to achieve new gains in capacity and efficiency from what we already own?
Most importantly, what about the money? How can we tell whether we will be spending wisely and within bounds of reason when today no one can actually point to a regional summary of what we have in the transportation financial kitty and what we seem to be committed to spending it on? There is no regional transportation financial overview and plan. That'ês a fact. That should throw a huge note of caution over the echoing arguments on how to pay for the projects, big and small, as they parade one by one across our blindered view of the transportation landscape.
Of course, everyone has his or her own keen and cogent idea about where to find the money for his or her pet project. A sales tax increase here. A new MVET there. A new toll someplace and probably a different new toll someplace else. A gas tax increase. A federal stimulus windfall (our children'ês tax dollars). Higher parking taxes. A local improvement district for the waterfront. Any-new-tax-that'ês-not-on-me. A carbon emission tax. A fancy carbon cap-and-trade fee. A vehicle-miles-traveled fee. An employee head tax. A ferry district tax A county ferry tax. A container fee. An excise tax on tires. Higher property tax levies. Another big gas tax increase. And so on.
What'ês it all add up to? How can you sell voters time after time on big hits to their wallets when they see no plan for how the choices are being made for the regional system as a whole and no budget to tell them what'ês coming next in the taxes and fees they pay?
Citizens, at least a lot of them, are frustrated and angry and don'êt need to be patronized with buzzwords like 'êtransparency'ê to know that they'êre not getting any. Even when projects are delivered as promised, and a lot have been, many citizens have become too cynical to believe it.
Tim Eyman, uninvited to the viaduct celebration, must have been in Mukilteo watching the news and rubbing his hands in glee at the viaduct tunnel consensus photo op. The much-decried interference of the initiative process is probably propelled more by disillusion about the fragmented and unaccountable way we do business than from a true fervor of anti-tax ideology.
So what should we do? In pursuit of plain speaking, common sense, and more just outcomes, let me offer two immediate conditions of a useful regional transportation plan.
First, people who use and benefit from the transportation system should pay for the transportation system. That'ês not the same as saying, however, that every individual needs to pay only for the road he or she drives on. It'ês the cost and the value of the entire regional transportation system and service that need to be fairly toted up and paid for by its users.
The state gas tax, long-shared between state and local needs (a little understood fact), used to be a good rough justice way of setting up the connection with many users, while sales and excise taxes helped on the public transportation side. But modern transportation finance has to be re-aligned with lowering, not increasing, fossil fuel consumption. And roads and transit are no longer separate systems but linked parts of overall approaches to getting people around.
Around the country and around the world, transportation finance is moving to tolls. Some areas keep the tolls in the public sector; some are making more use of the private sector. But a good toll system, like a good transportation system itself, is not a piecemeal system. It also must look at the big system-wide picture, not just project-by project. In our case we should be looking to the region as a whole to identify the right parts of the entire system to toll, so that users of the entire system will contribute to its modernization and the investments will be made with a regional view of how to make the entire system, not just isolated parts of it, work better.
If we drag our feet on regional tolling now and instead set up old-fashioned, piecemeal, project-by-project tolls, they will quickly reveal their obsolescence and inadequacy. We would then have to undo what we will have done and then start over while we watch other parts of the country get it right the first time. One region that is getting it right is the Bay Area Toll Authority in the San Francisco Bay region, which is drawing on all the revenue power of the area'ês big bridges to create a unified transportation financial vision.
It'ês time to get the lead out of our shoes and parochial thinking out of our brains. We, too, could be leaders in the quest of sense, justice, and efficiency in our transportation funding arrangements. The first big step toward this is to take the bold steps toward a region-based tolling approach.
The second immediate condition for a rational approach is closely related to the first. New tolling technology also opens the door to all kinds of important opportunities for technology and innovation in the way our transportation system works. We need buses, cars, computers and communication, information and safety systems to start working together. For starters, collect vehicle tolls automatically and electronically as demonstrated on the new Narrows Bridge. And collect bus fares from riders carrying a chip in their iPod or cell phone for the automatic debiting of their trips costs as conveniently as they pay for music downloads.
But we can use information technology to do more than expediting toll and fare collections. In a technology-rich transportation environment, computers can set variable tolls to encourage people to drive when and where roads are less crowded, and where traffic is moving freely. Computers can direct truck deliveries to save fuel, time, traffic congestion, and road wear. Computers can make costs for vehicle insurance more equitable by charging on the basis of when and where the miles are driven. Computers can alert drivers to road hazards, snow squalls, and construction delays, and tell bus passengers exactly when the next bus will be at the corner of their street. Computers can announce when the next bus to a commuter's specific destination is pulling out of their nearest home park-and ride facility — where they leave the car during the day for its electric re-charge.
For lack of a bold regional leap into technology, we are also missing the chance to make older parts of our transportation system more efficient and productive, which is exactly the first and best way to make investments in the system help pay for themselves. That'ês good for people and it'ês good for our regional economy.
It'ês way past time for a change in how we are getting the transportation job done in the Puget Sound region. Citizen and voters are desperate for a new regional approach, and it'ês high time they got it. Politicians in Olympia and in every local jurisdiction in the region should see the light and get on the program.
One final note, saluting the crowning irony of the tunnel-for-viaduct announcement. Good work, Dino Rossi. The tunnel in his campaign transportation platform is now the plan. And the liberals are taking the heat for imposing the new taxes to make it work. They named Boston'ês Big Dig tunnel for Ted Williams. Maybe someday here we'êll actually build Seattle'ês waterfront tunnel and everyone will decide to name it for Dino.