It’s a cliche of every local election. The dynamic candidate, in search of “your vote,” is going to “do something” about Seattle traffic. Every state legislative candidate, mayoral hopeful, would-be county and city councilmember, along with more than a few aspiring school board members all want to fix it.
And then they get into office.
Why don’t their efforts to fix it work? Nobody tries. Locally, Seattle doesn’t do transportation projects; it does real estate projects with transportation money. For the last decade, the city spent its discretionary capital funds on, first, the Mercer Mess and then streetcars. Traffic engineers correctly predicted that the Mess — aka the Paul Allen Beautification Project — would make South Lake Union traffic worse. It didn’t matter; it made Allen’s real estate holdings prettier.
Similarly, city leaders were so anxious to build the South Lake Union Trolley that they didn’t even notice its acronym, much less its lack of passengers. Fixed rail projects boost real estate values, so Seattle has expanded streetcars at an exorbitant cost per mile, with projected riders drawn almost entirely from existing bus routes. Transportation isn’t the point. Corporate welfare for developers is.
And those are the relatively good transportation policies. For the truly awful ones, turn to Olympia and our state legislature.
The downtown tunnel, of course, was a state creation. Even if Bertha quietly applies for help under the state’s Death with Dignity law, the tunnel project will be a success with its newly enriched waterfront-area property owners.
But at least with all these projects, something’s being built. What’s being generated by Olympia, particularly the Republican-controlled state Senate (unofficial motto: “Let’s screw the liberal bastards in Seattle!”), is far worse.
For the past two legislative sessions, the state had no transportation budget. You read that correctly. Nada. Why? Because Republicans managed to block one unless it focused on roads and eviscerated public transit. Blocking the budget at least accomplished one of these goals: Without state funding, public transit agencies were forced to scale back or even close operations. Despite record ridership, King County Metro had to scramble last year to avoid devastating cuts, and city routes remain hopelessly crowded and inadequate.
Which brings us to 2015: The Senate has finally decided that it really ought to offer some, any budget proposal. What it’s coughed up makes all of these previous transportation disasters seem like, well, really good ideas.
Essentially, the Senate’s 16-year, $15-billion proposal parties like it’s 1959. More than half goes directly to “highway improvements,” disproportionately funding projects outside Puget Sound where most of Washington’s population growth is happening. Public transit gets hosed. A poison pill requires $750 million in transit and multimodal funds be redirected to the Motor Vehicle Fund if either a carbon tax or stricter fuel economy standards are enacted. Sound Transit’s request for permission to ask local voters for $15 billion in new light rail funding, which isn’t even state money, gets reduced to $11 billion. (“You don’t need to carry that baby for a full nine months, do you? Let’s make it six and a half!”) Even then, Republicans tie that provision directly to approval of several road mega-projects, most notably a major new north-south freeway in Spokane. Another jewel: Beyond a gas tax increase, some of the proposed funding comes from transfers from sales tax revenues, putting pressure on other parts of the already-gutted state budget.
In short, after two years of obstruction, Senate Republicans have proposed an ideological wish list that blocks climate change measures, defunds public transit, pours enormous funding into highways and penalizes Seattle pretty much for the sake of penalizing Seattle. Har, har, har. Facepalm.
In terms of moving people and goods, this is why we can’t have nice things. Everybody’s got a transportation agenda. Sadly, none of those agendas actually promote, you know, transportation.