Seattle's car tab proposition lets city move ahead

Proposition 1 has taken its share of criticism, and it's not perfect. But voting against would be perfectly wrong for a city that wants to compete economically in the country and the world.

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Patching on a Seattle street.

Proposition 1 has taken its share of criticism, and it's not perfect. But voting against would be perfectly wrong for a city that wants to compete economically in the country and the world.

Every city where I've lived — Washington, D.C., Santiago, Chile, San Francisco, and Portland — has had an efficient and modern transportation system that relies on the integration of modes of travel including rail, bus, car, bike, and walking. Great 21st century cities use each of these methods to move citizens and goods around the metropolitan environment. While I own a car that I often use to get around Seattle, there is no doubt that a robust, multi-modal transportation system is critical to our future as a livable city and our ability to compete in the global marketplace.

This is primarily why I have been convinced to vote "yes" on Seattle's Transportation Benefit District Proposition 1 this November. The transportation investments in Proposition 1 will both make our city a better place to live and help Seattle continue our drive toward being a leader in job growth. While the package is not perfect, we do not have the time to allow ourselves to let a quest for the perfect blind us to the good.

In the past decade our city has grown by almost 10 percent in population and we expect another 1.7 million people and 1.2 million jobs in our region by 2040. In the coming decades Seattle will be expected to accommodate a significant portion of this surge in both people and jobs. But initiatives have eliminated many traditional transportation funding sources, leaving us with few options for funding the transit improvements that will both keep our city competitive in the face of this growth. Given these challenges, we must take control of our own destiny and make smart decisions in investing in ourselves.

Proposition 1 is the result of the work of the most recent Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee ("CTAC III"), a robust citizen panel headed by leaders from the business, labor, environmental, and social justice communities who engaged citizens across the city for the past year. After months of listening to the people, CTAC III proposed a measure to the City Council that was approved and placed on the ballot by a 9-0 vote (with support from Mayor Mike McGinn). This process was designed to reflect the wishes and real needs of our citizenry, not simply to propose a series of grandiose ideas or respond to the interests of pundits.

Proposition 1 will nearly double the number of neighborhood repaving projects we do every year, vastly increase our city's investments in sidewalks, and expand family-friendly infrastructure. The measure contains hundreds of smart, cost-effective improvements that will make transit faster and our streets safer and more efficient. It will fund these investments through one of the only tools we have as a city to fund transportation improvements. While a license fee may not be the perfect approach to fund transportation improvements, it is the best tool we as a city currently have to invest in our transportation system. There simply isn't enough development to rely on development fees, and a sales tax is too regressive to increase any further. Further, we have to recognize that almost 20 percent of the city's residents don't have cars and those individuals tend to have lower than average incomes. While Proposition 1 isn't perfect, arguing this measure is the "most regressive tool possible" is simply specious. Moreover, the proposed improvements help support those who can't afford private transportation.

Proposition 1 is also a balanced and smart approach. It will provide a $204 million investment in transit, road repair and maintenance, and pedestrian- and bicycle-safety improvements. For oversight, Proposition 1 will enfranchise a citizen committee to review expenditures. And let's not forget that the City Council (sitting as the Transit Benefit District) and the mayor will be accountable through the ballot box if the funds are spent irresponsibly.

Nearly half of the package ($100 million) is dedicated to transit improvements and will fund speed and reliability enhancements on major transit corridors helping to move buses up to 20 percent faster. Most of the improvements in transit are smart, small fixes that will make the system work better: investments will synchronize our traffic lights so buses can move more efficiently, allow transit vehicles quicker entry to traffic (as at 6th and Olive), and move some stops so that buses don't get stopped behind red lights after picking up passengers. These are simple, inexpensive, and efficient improvements that will move people around the city faster and more efficiently. And just so we're clear: Seattle does not directly control our busing system, so while we could have purchased bus hours with this package, the committee decided to make long-term, permanent improvements that will help buses for years after construction, not just helping one route for a few years. Proposition 1 isn't permanent, but the way we spend the money it generates can be.

For those concerned about a transit-only focus, Proposition 1 also takes care of the basics. Almost $60 million will be allotted to repaving and repairing local streets, which will allow our city to nearly double the number of annual neighborhood repaving projects we do every year and fix thousands of potholes. And again, this package was smartly designed: it was specifically engineered to complement, not duplicate, the Bridging the Gap measure, which focused on bridge repair and larger projects.

Finally, Proposition 1 will create safer and more efficient neighborhood streets by dedicating $44 million to doubling investments in sidewalks and expanding the Neighborhood Street Fund by nearly 50 percent. This funding will allow for safe crossings and other needs identified by neighborhood councils. One of the criticisms that can be made of Proposition 1 is that it’s simply too modest of a measure for what we're ultimately going to need to compete in the global economy while preserving our livable city. But it is an opportunity to start becoming a great 21st century American city.

As we face the continuing challenges of our extended recession, we have to be smart both about the amount of dollars we invest as well as the way in which we invest them. A dollar invested today could save thousands tomorrow in cost savings for upkeep and produce jobs along the way. The principle is the same here: by investing in our transportation infrastructure today with smart improvements to roads, the transit system, freight mobility, and pedestrian connections, we'll create good-paying local jobs while saving millions in long-term costs for lost hours of productivity and the decrease in viability of our economic cores.

In today's political and economic climate, we simply can’t afford petty fights over incremental transportation improvements. Proposition 1 is critical to our future, and we should make the smart choice and support the balanced mix of projects recommended by the blue-ribbon leaders of CTAC III, all nine members of our City Council, and the mayor.

Let's not be a pennywise and a pound-foolish by putting off these needed and intelligent infrastructure investments. We can, and must, be a global hub for the 21st century if we are going to protect and grow our city, and that requires investing in ourselves. Let's seize this opportunity to help Seattle be the city we know it can be.


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