Our region's transportation plan: too heavy on the growth

Mayor McGinn is one of the few who grasp that our plans for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and 520 are symptoms of a failure to contend with an underlying regional disease: growth for its own sake.
Crosscut archive image.

Highway 520 in Bellevue at evening rush hour.

Mayor McGinn is one of the few who grasp that our plans for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and 520 are symptoms of a failure to contend with an underlying regional disease: growth for its own sake.

Author Edward Abbey famously said that "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." It's also the underpinning of our region's economic assumptions. At some point, for the sake of the planet and Puget Sound, we're going to have to pursue a different future, one with fewer people and an alternative economic model.

But right now, the forces for growth have two missions: to build us out of a recession, and craft a more "sustainable" region. Worthy goals, but that's not what's actually happening. In the name of jobs and "recovery," we're pursing projects that are not sustainable. We're following the same 20th century, post-war roadmap that devastated the Puget Sound lowlands with traffic and sprawl. And we're trying to have it both ways, which is not affordable.

When it comes to the future of Pugetopolis, things are bleak for those who hoped for less pavement. If Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn worries about the gribbles eating away at the waterfront seawall, he's also right to be concerned about the monsters that roll through the region laying concrete. Unfortunately, that's where the regional momentum is.

The 520 bridge project is adding beef (capacity, height, width) to an earlier 1960s highway project that even Democratic King County Executive Dow Constantine concedes should probably have never been built. (Others think it was the making of modern Bellevue.) In Seattle, we're pursing a massive Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project that lays highway lanes through (and under) the city. And the Puget Sound Region Council, the four-county public-policy body that attempts to find a regional "vision" forward, has floated its Transportation 2040 plan, complete with at least eight major regional highway projects that voters have already declined. The price tag for these resurrected "zombie" projects is another $9 billion.

How do we pay for so many mega-projects, plus regional rail and other infrastructure investments? We pay with more growth that will require yet more building. This is the cancer syndrome Abbey warned about.

It is easy to argue that there is no "vision" for Puget Sound, but the PSRC and the business community clearly have one. Greens have tried to improve it by pushing for rail and transit, but so far these are expensive add-ons that are a form of mitigation in response to the underlying disease. If you rebuild 520 with light-rail capacity, it becomes more acceptable to greens, but also wider, and more expensive, and will possibly contribute only a kind of pricey symbolism. (Sound Transit, which runs our regional rail system, doesn't even want to run rail there.) Paradoxically, the wider bridge might end up carrying more cars if rail is delayed or never built there. Making the bridge rail-friendly symbolizes the unsustainable burden of trying to please everyone: It could actually make the project worse because it could solve little or nothing at greater cost.

McGinn's 'obstructionism' on 520 and the post-Viaduct tunnel is productive, not destructive.

The fact is, a 21st century solution would either be to right the wrong of the 1960s by removing the bridge, or replacing it with a slim one devoted mostly to transit and commercial traffic. A wide road-rail hybrid will cost a lot, but won't repair the mistakes of the freeway era. Why would we want to double down on a highway that should never have been built? Constantine argues that we have to because we have to serve the communities that have grown to rely on it and that we have to transition slowly to a more sustainable development model. This argument, extrapolated throughout the region, essentially means we can't say no to much of anything that threatens the status quo.

McGinn argues for a vision that is more environmentally sustainable: more density, more mass transit. But such a vision is undercut if it makes too many compromises with the PSRC view of the world

So far, McGinn is taking bold stands (he's one of a few to oppose the PSRC plan; Constantine says he supports it), but the mayor is not simply an obstructionist. He offers an alternative vision: limit new car capacity and extend light rail to more neighborhoods. He recognizes that the policies of trying to keep the roads paradigm going and simultaneously move to sustainability don't work. Choices have to be made. Which is why his "obstructionism" on 520 and the post-Viaduct tunnel is productive, not destructive.

McGinn expresses confidence that reality, and public opinion, will be with him in the long run. While Gov. Gregoire presses ahead on the Viaduct replacement (the mile south of the central waterfront is about to come down) and pushes forward with her option on 520, she's engaging in a kind of muscular incrementalism: build in pieces and gain momentum, wave the bloody shirt of jobs and public safety to scare people into support. It's effective.

But McGinn says there are still some serious obstacles. On the tunnel, he reiterates his opposition to moving ahead without first removing the cost-overrun provision that could stick Seattleites with any extra bill. And he adds that the notion that the provision is unenforceable anyway is foolish because there are many in the region who are determined to enforce it as a matter of principle. Our neighbors in Pierce County and elsewhere are tired of donating to Seattle's pet causes. We're a 900-pound gorilla much less loved than the late Bobo. Besides, says McGinn, if the cost-overrun provision isn't enforceable, and if, as Gregoire says, overruns aren't a worry, why is it needed? He believes it likely is enforceable and that ruinous overruns are inevitable, as they are on virtually all mega-projects.

On 520, the mayor continues to insist on taking more time to design it properly to minimize west-side impacts and to build it to carry future light rail. If the new bridge is going to be around 75 years or more, get it right, he says. But he also sketches out other hurdles the project faces, obstacles that might be insurmountable. There is the threat of lawsuits from Montlake neighbors if the current six-lane plan pushes ahead; there's the fact that it isn't funded yet (and funding might be been made even more problematic if tolls cannot also be put on I-90); and that numerous elected officials in Olympia are skeptical of the current plan — among them the most powerful politician in Olympia, Seattle Democrat House Speaker Frank Chopp. The six-lane option claims near-consensus preference, but there's a broader political constituency in play, and yet to be convinced.

McGinn takes inspiration from the ramps to nowhere in the Washington Park Arboretum. That they were never connected up proves to him that the public wants light rail on 520, he says. We have to articulate a different vision for Seattle's future, he adds, which is what those ramps symbolize. They were built in anticipation of a future expressway that never materialized, though what did occur was bad enough. (Architect Victor Steinbrueck decried 520's "naked brutality.")

The new 520 plans call for taking down those redolent ramps, finally. These symbols of a better future are finally going to be demolished in favor of...a bigger highway.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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