The Cascadia conundrum: Balkanized transportation

Puget Sound is a poster child for the problems of regional transportation planning. One big roadblock: long-standing distrust of Seattle.

Crosscut archive image.

The Bellevue skyline.

Puget Sound is a poster child for the problems of regional transportation planning. One big roadblock: long-standing distrust of Seattle.

The Cascadia Center has been affiliated with the Discovery Institute, known for its advocacy of "intelligent design." Cascadia has balanced Discovery's charter because its expertise is "unintelligent design," namely regional transportation. Everyone agrees those problems are man-made.

Cascadia was founded in the 1990s to push a regional agenda aimed at infrastructure and economics in the larger region, and especially focusing on the Vancouver-to-Eugene corridor. They urge high-speed rail, freight mobility, they even helped cook up the downtown tunnel as an Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement option. Bruce Agnew, a former staffer for onetime Republican Congressman and Seattle City Councilman John Miller, runs Cascadia, and the group has been partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They're now looking at a more distant relationship with Discovery, which will likely make some potential funders more comfortable, especially greens for whom anti-science conservatism is anathema.

The bigger picture is that the Cascadia Center has been a less airy-fairy advocate of regional coordination and cooperation. It emphasizes Cascadia's joint economic clout as opposed to its green-corner-of-the-world feel. Cascadia as an economic zone, not an isolated Ecotopian Alamo. The center has been concerned with how to get people and goods, and ideas, back and forth across the Canadian border, for example. 

Agnew, at a recent meeting with Crosscut staff, talked at length about lessons that can be imported from British Columbia, where public-private partnerships (P3's in transpo jargon) have helped build highways, bridges, hospitals, and schools. This in "socialist" Canada. There are opportunities here too, especially if banks and investment funds get more active and the gap between public funding and infrastructure appetites continues to grow. The 520 bridge is a couple billion dollars short: Could the private sector step in and win a contract to manage it, with the inevitable tolls, to the benefit of both public and private interests? Could public employee or union pension funds invest in such projects to make a reasonable return and keep their people in jobs? Cascadia originally envisioned the downtown tunnel as a P3.

There are plenty of other, smaller opportunities for P3s as well, including some kind of multi-use redevelopment of Colman Dock on the Seattle waterfront. The ferry system  might be an ideal agency to experiment with them, matching need (new docks and terminals) with amenities for tourists, commuters, maybe even housing. Why not?

One of the biggest barriers to progress in transportation is balkanization, and Puget Sound is a poster child. It's tough, says Agnew, to do even simple stuff that can make a difference. The ORCA card? That no-brainier took only took eight years and $35 million, Agnew said. There are plenty of arbitrary boundaries here that impact our ability to move broadly and nimbly. It's an old complaint, but it's a real one: we have too many cooks in the kitchen; our process fetish leaves many opportunities for parochial monkey-wrenching. He points to the example that along Highway 99, each city has a separate contract with different companies to manage the traffic lights. Instead of having synchronized traffic signals along its length, let alone smart lights that read and adjust lights in real time to traffic levels, the corridor is more of a bottleneck than need be. Imagine the savings in time, congestion, and pollution if it something as simple as traffic lights were coordinated?

Creating a new regional governance system for Puget Sound always raises big fears and suspicions. Back in the 1950s and '60s when Metro was formed, it was portrayed a kind of spider at the center of a Big Government web. Many suburban cities opted out, and the water cleanup was eventually limited mostly too Lake Washington, but the larger plan, which would have included lakes and sewage systems throughout the region, was whittled down. Local opt-outs and funding based on location rather than need are also problems. Regional government and planning reform are shot down by local interests, fear of big government, and distrust of Seattle.

The latter is important. The creature at the center of the web is often identified as the region's biggest city, widely regarded by the communities around it with the kind regard one would have, if we mix animal metaphors a bit, for a badly behaved 900-pound gorilla. (Bobo, Woddland Park's fabled ape, was fun to look at in his cage, but he treated female companion Fifi miserably and loved throwing his weight around and hogging all the cake.) 

No one trusts Seattle with power because it is believed the city will always exercise it to its own advantage, and/or that it will pursue a screwball agenda with no basis in reality for other municipalities. The fact that the Eastside end of 520 is underway while the Seattle side is still embroiled in (some legitimate) design issues is but the latest example. People fear that Seattle-style dysfunction will swallow them — or they'll catch it like a case of civic cooties. Nor is Seattle regarded as a particularly inspiring role model, as the hubbub over then-Bremerton Mayor Cary Bozeman's critique of Seattle's treatment of its own waterfront and Pioneer Square revealed. Seattle isn't the paragon of urban design it pretends to be.

Seattle is the dominant center of Pugetopolis, but has embraced a central-city growth ethic that puts it in competition with its neighbors. And Bellevue, which was barely even visible from Seattle 40 years ago, has literally grown up as a kind of rebuke to Seattle's dominance and self-regard. Other communities are competing for growth and population and power, too. All those urban growth nodes in the suburbs want their share. It was ever thus on the Sound, where regional rivalries have been intense at least since Seattle and Tacoma tried to kill each other off over the railroad.

Instead of being bossed around by Seattle, many suburbs have simply been turning into Seattle, becoming more dense, more diverse, and better places for starving artists to find vital immigrant communities, cheap housing, and work space. The Seattleizing (or Brooklynizing) of the suburbs has been going on a while — Starbucks helped lead the charge in the '90s by colonizing regional shopping centers; the job is being extended by strip mall ethnic eateries. The Eastside, as it has become more dense and more populated by Microsofters, has also trended bluer politically, turning more purple than the reliable red that it used to be. The days when the old Bellevue American was the most John Birch Society-friendly weekly in the state seem faraway and long ago.

One battle to watch is the fight over light rail in Bellevue. The rail effort could be sabotaged by a Tim Eyman initiative and Bellevue's retail Robert Moses, Kemper Freeman, Jr. is a mighty opponent of Sound Transit and proponent of his own interests. Freeman does not want to see Seattle values dominate on the Eastside, which is still car-oriented and rich with development potential. (Back in the '90s, the late Eastsideweek ran a spoof campaign for Eastside secession and it was very popular with readers.)

While Freeman has been a huge booster of urban-style development in downtown Bellevue, it's not necessarily in his interest to see the city's center of gravity shift to other corridors. Sound Transit's Eastside rail poses both the threat of big, spendy government, a big-city culture and political shift, and a redrawing of the real estate chessboard. (Freeman is a big funder of Tim Eyman's new anti-toll, anti-Eastside-rail initiative.) Another way to view light rail is as a potential boon for the suburbs, just as the building of floating bridges was. But the very concept of regional rail carries the baggage of Seattle hegemony.

It will be very tough to rewrite regional governance without getting over some of these old barriers. Seattle's recent behavior hasn't done its image any good. The fight over the downtown tunnel, the broken promises and costs of light rail, the bike-centric philosophy of the mayor and his brain-trust, the sense that Seattle isn't a team player, never will be. Greg Nickels, who had a can-do orientation in terms of big projects, was seen as too Seattle-centric. So, too, Schell, Rice, and Royer before him. Nickels once raised the idea of Seattle secession to express his frustration with the rest of the region, and Olympia, for not bending to local will. Part of the problem lies in the Seattle utopian attitude that wraps its ideas in moral superiority. Seattle mayors are out to save the world. The mayor of Federal Way or Renton — they just want to get stuff done. It doesn't help that Nickels posed in Vanity Fair and Mike McGinn is the cover-boy for Dope.

So, Cascadia still looks best from 10,000 feet, where the political and jurisdictional borders disappear, geography seems to have more logic, neighbors are much closer, the problems shrunk to invisibility. We can all feel like Paul Bunyan at that altitude, ready to reshape the region with the swing of an axe and the horns of an ox.

Agnew has said he is fascinated by the concept of the Salish Sea, which is another approach to a Cascadia-like concept. It defines a geographic entity. It speaks to having a shared stake in something bigger and border-bridging. it reflects the heritage of native tribes that traded and cooperated (and still do), share a common language, and had a common sense of place. Is there a way to shape a broader civic and commercial Cascadian — or Salishan — tribal council? That might be a way to bring some intelligent design to the workaday challenges of our region.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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