Monday, February 12, 2007

Transportation in Seattle
Part two: What to do about it? Answer: Sound Transit Plus
Previous post

Having established that transporation planning in the Seattle area is broken, the question becomes what to do about it. The danger in proposing solutions is that the crux of the problem is one of the Seattle process. Simply put, democratic government in Seattle is broken, at least when it comes to transportation, with too many people having input and no one having the final authority to make a decision.

I have no problem with public involvement when planning the future. That is the essence of democracy. However, when nobody has the power to make a final decision, the public input just becomes a means for doing nothing--or even worse, for an undemocratic result to arise from a lack of official inaction. If public discussion does not result in public action, that's not democracy, it is the very antithesis of democracy. Any solution that adds more input without assigning responsibility for decisions and actions simply compounds the problem.

The question then becomes how can we organize decision-making responsibilities about transportation in Seattle so that the people who live here can contribute to those decisions without preventing our leaders from making clear decisions and acting upon them. Some basic principles are clear:

  • The Seattle metropolitan region is larger than Seattle, so comprehensive decisions must be regional.
  • The Seattle metropolitan region has completely different transportation needs from the rest of Washington state, so policies that apply statewide will often be inappropriate for the city.
  • Because the Department of Transportation has a statewide mandate, it is not the appropriate agency to make transportation decisions in the Seattle metropolitan region.
  • When two agencies both have decision-making power for the same area, those agencies will fight for their own interests, creating political gridlock. Therefore, only one agency should have decision-making power.
  • The state has an interest in coordinating metro and statewide projects, so any regional agency should include a representative from the state level to help coordinate regional and state projects.
  • The state has already designated Sound Transit as a regional agency for the Seattle metropolitan area. The Sound Transit district includes the urban areas in three counties surrounding Seattle that constitute nearly half of the state's population.
  • Transportation policy is ultimately about moving people and freight, not vehicles. Any effective transportation policy must be technology neutral, and must include all forms of transportation in a corridor as part of a single integrated system designed to move people and freight as quickly as possible.
  • An integrated system is most efficiently run by a single agency. Therefore, all transportation facilities in the Seattle metropolitan area, including all roads and highways that connect two or more towns or cities, should properly be the responsibility of the regional agency.
  • The agency that makes transportation decisions must also be able to make decisions about the revenue that it needs to implement those decisions. Therefore:
  • All state revenue used to support state highways that is currently collected within the metropolitan region must be redirected to the regional agency. Furthermore:
  • The regional agency must have the power to raise new taxes, without the necessity of expensive and resource-draining public referendums.
  • To account for this power of taxation, the governing board of the regional agency must include some directly elected representatives. This provides a way for voters to hold their elected officials responsible for transportation decisions.

Interestingly, Sound Transit is well-situated to take on these additional responsibilities. As an agency, it already includes among its board of directors elected leaders from the cities and councils within the Sound Transit district, as well as state representation in the person of the director of the DOT. It needs only three additional powers before it can fulfill the principles above:

  • Control over state highways within the Sound Transit district.
  • Statutory power to raise taxes.
  • Directly elected members on the board of directors.

I call this proposal "Sound Transit Plus." It's funny that I've come to this conclusion, as I was for many years an opponent of Sound Transit, not because of their goals but because of how they were managed. I was also a supporter of the monorail. But I realize now the real problems with Sound Transit are the same as the larger problems of democracy in Seattle. They were competing with other agencies, did not have final say over transportation in the region, and did not (and still do not have) enough money to put their vision into action. The Seattle Monorail Project, as well-intentioned as it was, was fatally flawed because it used city politics to achieve a regional goal. There was simply no way that good management could come from creating a second city-wide government to do what the city council wouldn't--implement a transit system to solve a larger metropolitan problem.

If Sound Transit had the state highway money that is collected within its district, it suddenly becomes a much more effective agency. It can decide whether that money is best spent on beefing up highways as DOT planned, or better used in some combination with transit. They can decide upon the best use of current revenue--mostly gas taxes, sales taxes, and vehicle taxes--and then determine what still needs to be done.

That's when it needs to use the power of the purse to dramatically change the system. Here's what I would recommend:

  • A system of adaptive congestion tolls on all state highways and major commuting arterials in the Sound Transit district. This system of tolls would have the dual purpose of raising money for road maintenance and transit while also discouraging congestion. This is superior to no tolls, or tolls only on new or selected projects, because it creates market incentives for people to choose transit, carpool or vanpool, choose a less congested (and thus less polluting) route, and forego unnecessary trips. It also prevents people from simply avoiding selected tolls by choosing untolled roads.
  • Possibly an additional congestion charge for people entering the downtown Seattle core, high enough so that bus and rail alternatives are cheaper than the toll alone.
  • Additional user fees on cars, when appropriate.
  • An acceleration of the light rail and commuter rail timeline and scope so that the entire regional system is complete within 15 years, and includes areas not in current planning such as those along the 99 corridor.
  • In the short-term, retrofit the Alaskan Way Viaduct to prevent its fall during a major earthquake. Make changes to mitigate the eventual loss of the viaduct, including light rail transit and freight transit improvements to the east and south (and possibly making some downtown lanes freight-only north of the viaduct). Do not expand Alaskan Way beyond its current four-lane size. Begin redeveloping the waterfront side of the road. Only after all of these steps are taken, consider whether it is possible to remove the viaduct without replacement.

The state would lose a lot of power and money in this deal, and along with skeptical voters it would be one of the greatest obstacles to these changes. But if it could be brought around, this would free it to redefine its mission. It could:

  • Consider encouraging other metro areas in the state to develop their own regional transit agencies. The other areas that might qualify include, in order, Spokane, Clark County, Kitsap County, Yakima, Olympia, Bellingham, and the Tri-Cities. The state could develop a threshold for metropolitan size, and then allow metro counties to opt in if they qualify.
  • Redefine its emphasis to focus on connecting metro regions to each other, and maintaining the current rural highway system, rather than building new highways.
  • Redirect its new construction money that remains to projects connecting metro areas in the state with metro areas of adjacent states and provinces. A major priority would be regional rail, possibly high-speed, connecting Seattle with Vancouver BC, Olympia, Portland, and Spokane. This could be a model for an eventual renewed national network of high-speed rail.

This may not be possible, but it would certainly fix the current problems with the Seattle process. The remaining questions are ones of political feasibility. How do we get there from here? That's an open question that I will likely revisit in future posts.

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Anonymous Benjamin said...

If this region had more intelligent journalists and citizens like the author of this blog, we wouldn't be in the mess we find ourselves in. The vision of an integrated, multi-modal transportation system has been lacking for many years now. On problem, in my view, has been the fight over roads vs. transit. This last election finally put the nail on that coffin, as the last handful of suburban light rail opponents were replace by pro-rail legislators. And it wasn't just about party affiliation - Fred Jarret, a Republican, was able to keep his seat because of his support for multi-modal solutions.

Unfortunately, there is a terribly misguided effort underway to re-make the transportation governance structure in Pugetopolis. In contrast to the vision Cas lays out, the PSRTC recommendations call for the elimination of Sound Transit. They want to replace a locally-appointed board with an elected board, which would also have members appointed by the GOVERNOR.

All this would do is bring back the old roads vs. transit fights - which the roads-bus folks still hope to win. It's no wonder the only support for this proposal comes from the pavememnt lobby:

I look forward to coming back to this blog, and reading more of the author's useful and thoughful observations.

11:13 AM  

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