Why is transportation in the driver's seat?

Seven questions about Seattle's transportation obsession — the one that has Mayor McGinn and the city council fighting furiously over a signature on a piece of paper.

Crosscut archive image.

The 520 bridge-replacement project: a headline-grabbing example of infrastructure

Seven questions about Seattle's transportation obsession — the one that has Mayor McGinn and the city council fighting furiously over a signature on a piece of paper.

Transportation. It's always trouble.

And it's in the news.

The Seattle waterfront tunnel debate blew up again last week over the controversial signing of a draft supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, leading to a crisis between Mayor Mike McGinn (a tunnel skeptic) and the city council President Richard Conlin, a tunnel supporter. Conlin's defenders say, "It's the right thing to do"; his detractors compare him to Richard Nixon.

Unfortunately, that brouhaha tended to overshadow the city's choice of a top-notch design firm, James Corner Field Operations, to begin laying out a vision for the park that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a piece of urban planning that could have a major impact on the city for a century to come.

Sound Transit made headlines when it raised the possibility that it might (once again) delay extending light rail, this time south of SeaTac, due to revenue shortfalls.

And a lawsuit is before the Supreme Court, one that holds that putting light rail on I-90 violates the state constitution.

We also learned that the Elliott Bay Seawall can withstand a direct hit from a water taxi. At least the gribbles, the little creatures nibbling away at the pilings, haven't won yet!

Bigger gribbles, however, are gnawing away at transportation regionwide. I was recently asked to speak to a transportation committee of the League of Women Voters to put some of these issues in a regional, historical and cultural context.

Rather than provide them with answers, I raised a series of seven questions about Seattle transportation that might help them navigate and assess the issues and roadblocks. Here they are:

1. Why is there so much emphasis on transportation? You would sometimes think there are no other issues in Seattle or the region as important as transportation. Roads, bikes, bridges, and trains seem to trump schools, arts, crime, education, environmental clean-up (Puget Sound), social services, neighborhood scale, heritage. We seem to have turned our lives over to traffic engineers.

We also seem to have forgotten putting any emphasis on not moving people around. Whatever happened to Bill Gates' Information Superhighway? Didn't his book The Road Ahead suggest a future with less emphasis on actual roads? Ironies abound, such as Microsoft's influence in banging through an expanded 520. And isn't it interesting that while we're supposed to be moving ideas around rather than people, the Gates Foundation (a Crosscut funder) used its clout and money to bend Sixth Avenue around their new headquarters? Give them the Uri Geller award!

2. Why is transportation rarely about transportation? A road isn't just a road; a pothole isn't a pothole, a bike lane isn't a bike lane. Each is either a step toward Utopia, or the Apocalypse, a move to stop global warming, or a key to staving off the city's imminent industrial collapse. Bikes save the planet, SUVs destroy it.

Transportation projects are about real estate, markets, who profits from access, and social engineering. Transportation projects are often prioritized for other than the stated reasons. Mike McGinn suggests moving on the seawall and is immediately suspected by city council members of trying to sabotage the tunnel. Mercer Mess fixers says they want to improve traffic, but move ahead even when consultants report the project will have minimal impact on traffic congestion. Calling it a South lake Union Beautification Project just won't sell.

People argue that rail will either destroy their business, or funnel it all to some other part of town. There are powerful agendas behind proposals and fueling both proponents and opponents. Arguments frequently become "pragmatism" vs. "Utopia," but often have nothing to do with either.

3. Why do we have a have 20th century appetite in 21st century reality? Crosscut writer Jordan Royer recently asked about transportation, "What century is this?" The answer: Not the 21st. We're still planning and spending like tomorrow limitless growth is inevitable. It's the kind of bubble thinking that gave rise to the real estate and dot-com bubbles, and subsequent collapses. We've yet to adjust our eyes and our stomachs to fiscal reality: that we can't keep using the credit card.

Here is a taste of the fiscal reality of projects that are already underway. And when, by the way, has Seattle been engaged in three major simultaneous transportation projects each costing more than $1 billion? Sound Transit 2 is $18 billion, and is at least $4 billion behind in revenues. The 520 Bridge Expansion: $4.65 billion, with $2 billion not yet raised. It also means major tolls starting soon. The total Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project is $3.1 billion, of which $2.4 is raised and nearly a billion is supposed to come from tolling and the Port of Seattle. But there are also the costs of the seawall, and surface improvements, which could be $1 billion or more. On top of these are proposals for light rail to Ballard and West Seattle, high-speed train service between Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, the need to fully fund Metro transit service, and a legislature that wants more roads in Pugetopolis.

You can see that the transportation "want monster" has an endless appetite. As I noted recently, former Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown was prescient when he said, "We're not so rich as we have been led to believe." If this recession hasn't convinced us that's true, what will?

4. Why is transportation a nexus for regional dysfunction? The politics of getting places are difficult in a place that's tough to get around in. But transportation projects often highlight regional fault lines in terms of urban vision and who's going to pay for what.

The Eastside is happy with its part of the 520 expansion plan while Seattle disagrees about what should happen where the bridge hits its shores. Sound Transit's vision for light rail differs from many in the downtown Bellevue business community. Remember the monorail Green Line debate? It was partly about wanting to have a Seattle-only project that wouldn't have to make the compromises and concessions Sound Transit had to make to the more road-centric suburbs. McGinn's desire to extend light rail in the city? Not on Sound Transit's near-term map, and McGinn says he can build it cheaper than they can. Suburban cities suspect Seattle views everything from a skewed, selfish, Ecotopian perspective. Seattleites view the suburban cities as car-loving oafs who are destroying the planet with sprawl.

We're not the first people to experience massive dysfunction in transportation. I was recently reading that successive Inca rulers were so determined to put their mark on the landscape, that one Incan town has been discovered with three different roads leading to it, each built by a different ruler. I found something strangely comforting in that. But take note: Exceptional road infrastructure did not save the Inca empire.

Controversy goes with transportation projects, even when you have a "strongman" in charge. I've written about the battle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in New York. David and Goliath are caught in an eternal struggle, and Seattle has always been a city where public works have been hotly debated, from the R.H. Thomson Expressway to I-5, from Highway 99 cutting through Woodland Park to the fate of the trolley lines, from the construction of 520 to the expansion of I-90. Very little has happened easily.

5. Why is the design so bad? People concerned with the construction of I-5 begged for a lid over the freeway, but it was turned down and the result was an ugly cut through the heart of a now-divided city. Benefactors like Jim Ellis have tried to rectify the damage with Freeway Park and the Washington State Convention Center, but these are expensive band-aids.

An elevated solution to the viaduct replacement was rejected in part, I believe, because the specifications for a new viaduct seemed to call for something bigger and bulkier than the old, yet designers in Europe have been able to create elegant landmark viaducts, while ours remain heavy, brutal, cloddish. The plans for 520 at Montlake: it looks like a mess in a highly sensitive area to me.

There have been exceptions. Olmsted's "emerald necklace" of boulevards and parks is spectacular and a core to the city's plan; the Link Light Rail stations from downtown through Rainier Valley are wonderfully designed; the old Alweg monorail is still beautiful after a half-century; the old, modern, minimalist Evergreen Point Bridge, especially with its once-functioning fountains, was elegant and sleek.

So, we can get some projects right, but they require a commitment to design, and I believe if we had better design earlier, and more attention to scale, less of a tendency to over-build, some projects would be easier to finish. The idea that we need a downtown tunnel in order to hide traffic, instead of, say, a new soaring elevated that could be inspiring on its own, seems both foolish and expensive. We shouldn't be paying extra to bury our lack of imagination.

6. Why do we frequently starve what works? Metro bus service and bridge repair. Yawn. Despite efforts to infuse things like "sharrows" and "woonerfs," traffic circles, and "fixing the grid" with some kind magic, why can't we recognize that some transportation priorities involve boring old stuff, like buses and bus shelters, sidewalks, potholes, bridge repairs, fixing curbs, and that maintenance should take precedence over new stuff? Shouldn't a transportation priority be eliminating the maintenance backlogs?

It's easy to ignore the basics, but they always come back to haunt. Most mayors have tripped in potholes, for example, which still seem like they are proliferating throughout the city. A lesson in forgetting the basics is the snowplow debacle that helped to bring down Mayor Greg Nickels. In a talk with Crosscut staff recently, former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said one reason the plows weren't effective was that "SDOT's systems were old and not exercised," that the people in charge weren't experienced with the system, and that plow assignments and reports were done on paper, creating a new kind of bureaucratic blizzard in an emergency. And that's before you even get to the salt vs. sand debate. In short, the glamor of big and new overshadows the need for fixing old and dull.

7. Why do we believe in the myth of transportation gridlock? As we move forward on numerous mega and other transportation projects, let's forget the myth that we're not doing enough. With 520, the Viaduct and Sound Transit 2 alone, we're talking about spending at least $27 billion on Seattle transportation. Seattle likes to ride an optimism bubble.

Those pushing the transportation agenda often say we're being held back, that growth and the future are threatened, but the roadblocks and straw men are mostly imaginary. It's easier to say we're being sabotaged than it is to admit we're spending too much or that we're doing a bunch of the wrong stuff.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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