Monday, February 12, 2007

Transportation in the Seattle metropolitan area
Part one: Background to political gridlock

Decision-making about transportation in the Seattle metropolitan area is broken. Seattle is seen, mostly rightfully, as a relatively progressive city. Despite this, for decades it has been collectively incapable of making decisions that result in a transit system worthy of the city's reputation and aspirations.

Like many American cities, Seattle ripped up its old streetcar rail lines in the early-to-mid 20th century, convinced that cars had rendered them obsolete. As cars multiplied, Seattle built highways and freeways and more freeways. As early as the 1960s, while this freeway boom was still at its height (it is still ongoing), some people began to ask if there were better ways to move people. Several attempts were made to build commuter and light rail systems in the city, but all efforts failed until the state created a "Regional Transportation Authority" in the early 1990s, which created a regional agency with authority in the urban areas of the three counties making up the larger Seattle metropolitan area--and nearly half of the state's population. The agency's "Sound Move" plan was approved by voters in the district in the 1996 general election, and Sound Transit was born.

Sound Transit's plan expanded bus service, but also began building regional commuter rail and light rail lines. The early years of the agency were marked by mismanagement and cost-overruns. The voters approved a 25-mile light-rail line that would stretch from Seattle-Tacoma airport to the Northgate Mall north of downtown by 2006, but that was pared down to a 14-mile line running from downtown to almost two miles short of the airport, a few years later. By the turn of the century, even many progressives had soured on Sound Transit, seeing an expensive system that didn't even get people out of Seattle proper, much less throughout the region.

Partly in response to the early failures of Sound Transit, voters within the city of Seattle launched a multi-year grassroots initiative to build a monorail system within the city limits. The vision began with a citywide system that would in part duplicate Sound Transit's plan, but the original thinking was that Sound Transit was so mired in the notorious "Seattle process" that it might never get built. As the monorail plan moved forward, it became clear that Sound Transit would build its truncated line, and studies showed that the corridor most overlooked by Sound Transit and most likely to benefit from a monorail was on the west side of the city, connecting the West Seattle neighborhood on the other side of Elliott Bay from Downtown, to Downtown, and then to the Ballard neighborhood in north Seattle on the other side of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. This was the "Green Line" monorail proposal that was passed by the voters.

Unfortunately for the monorail, the funding attached to the Green Line proposal ended up 30% short of estimates. This eventually led to the demise of the plans for the monorail, after a complicated episode involving a flip-flop by Mayor Greg Nickels and an anti-monorail campaign that dishonestly used the full multi-decade financing costs of the monorail in future dollars to make it seem as expensive as possible.

Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Transportation was planning more state highways. Despite its name, the WSDOT is really a highway-building agency. It funds no mass transit projects. It controls several highways in the Seattle metro area, the two largest of which are SR-520 and SR-99. 520 is one of two cross-lake corridors that connects Seattle to Bellevue and other Eastside suburbs. The other corridor is served by Interstate 90. The 520 floating bridge and most of the highway that supports it was completed in the 1960s, and is now seriously past its prime. Similarly, the 99 corridor, once part of old US Highway 99 running from Canada to Mexico in the days before Interstate 5, is in serious disrepair. In downtown Seattle, the central portion runs on a raised highway--the Alaskan Way Viaduct--built in the 1950s for a much smaller volume of traffic than it now supports, which was significantly damaged in the 2001 earthquake. The state has drawn up multi-billion dollar plans to rebuild both highways, expanding capacity and bringing them up to current seismic and safety standards.

This is where the political mess begins. The political leaders of the city want to tear down the viaduct, put in a super-expensive tunnel, and "reconnect" the business district with the watefront where the viaduct set them apart. While the viaduct is a relatively short segment, it covers extremely valuable real estate that would be redeveloped if the viaduct came down--think huge dollars for downtown developers and real estate investors. The state was initially on board with the city, because the tunnel was a huge expensive freeway project that would fit within their highway-building mandate. The DOT put together several options for the corridor, ranging from a retrofit to a rebuild to a tunnel. It eventually narrowed down its options to tunnel or rebuild, initially pushing more strongly for the tunnel. However, as the true costs of the tunnel became clear--we're talking Big Dig territory in terms of money and disruption to the city, and involving rebuilding a seawall that keeps Elliott Bay away from the low-lying parts of downtown--the tunnel ran into huge resistance.

The opponents of the tunnel were in a few camps. Some suggested a rebuild would be cheaper, but that threatened the plans of the Mayor and his downtown supporters to redevelop the waterfront. Others suggested a retrofit of the current bridge, which also threatened the Mayor's redevelopment plan and left a 50-year old highway in place. Still others, wanting to move the city away from its reliance on cars, suggested tearing the viaduct down and reconnecting city streets, and using the money saved for parks and ecological restoration on Elliott Bay. This last position eventually became known as "Surface Plus Transit." The transit was originally going to be the monorail Green Line and possibly increased bus service to that line.

When the monorail was finally rejected in November 2005, the situation with the viaduct became even more complicated. Without transit along the corridor, pressure to rebuild the highway grew. But it also became clear that federal and state money to support the project would not be forthcoming, not at the newly inflated estimates for the tunnel. It would even be difficult to raise money for the rebuild. With the pool of available financing shrinking, and with plans to replace 520 gaining steam, the various factions became more intractable. The Mayor kept pushing for the tunnel, while the state (both the DOT and the Legislature) started backing away and pushing for the rebuild. The problem is that neither the state nor the city has final authority for the project. The city has the ability to block permits for construction, and the state has the highway funding. The political stalemate came to a head when Governor Gregoire told Seattle local officials that if they did not choose between the options, she would choose for them, and her choice was the rebuild. Within a couple of weeks, Gregoire backed off a bit and said that the city had the option of choosing one or the other, and that if they did not choose, she would use the money for 520 instead, leaving an earthquake-weakened structure intact and the nearby seawall that was also old and damaged and in danger of collapsing in any future earthquakes.

The city council responded by calling for a spring election with two non-binding votes on the rebuild and tunnel options. The surface plus transit folks were ignored. So now we have a huge standoff between Democratic politicians at the local and state level, and everyone else so upset that pressure is growing for a "No-No" vote in the advisory elections. If this happens, it's likely that the state will take the money originally set aside for the viaduct and use it for 520, and the city will be left with an aging highway and no redevelopment of the waterfront. This standoff has led to continued city-state negotiations, but it's likely that nothing will be decided before the advisory elections, if ever.

Meanwhile, Sound Transit has finally gotten its act together somewhat, and is building light rail. The existing bus tunnel is being retrofitted for rail, and rails are being laid throughout the line. The first portion of the line is scheduled for completion by summer 2009, from downtown to 1.7 miles short of the airport. The connection to the airport will follow by the end of 2009, and is already under construction. An expansion to the original planned northern termimus at Northgate Mall has been set aside, but Sound Transit is well on the way to securing federal funding for an expansion to the University of Washington by 2016. They have also conducted voter surveys and initial planning for an expansion of the line post-2016 to the suburban Eastside (passing through downtown Bellevue and terminating near Microsoft headquarters), and northward past the original planned terminus at Northgate, all the way to the suburb of Lynnwood. That proposal will be put to the ballot soon, and is likely to pass. They've also built and planned for expansion for a smaller light-rail line in Tacoma and supplementary commuter rail from Everett to south of Tacoma.

But here's the downside. 2016? For a line that doesn't even match the original plan for 2006? For a system that doesn't reach the suburbs until 2030? For a system that doesn't connect any of Seattle's west-side neighborhoods, those connected to downtown through the viaduct route? It's a disaster and an embarrassment. Transportation in the Seattle metropolitan area is broken, and residents of the area need to do something dramatic to change it, now. I'll describe some of my ideas about what should be done in upcoming posts.

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