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Too many transportation agencies?

By: Eric Pryne
The Seattle Times
February 6, 2003

Who's in charge of transportation in the Seattle area?

Everyone — and no one, a key state legislator and a Seattle think tank contend.

In a report released this week, Bruce Agnew and Bruce Chapman of the Discovery Institute argue that the large number of government agencies dealing with transportation is part of the reason why this region hasn't done more to address its traffic problems.

There's Sound Transit and Metro Transit. The Regional Transportation Investment District and the Puget Sound Regional Council. The state Department of Transportation and the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority.

Each has its own piece of the pie. "It's a mess," said Agnew, director of Discovery's Cascadia Project. "You couldn't diagram a worse organizational structure."

"When it's everybody's responsibility, it's nobody's responsibility," added Chapman, the institute's president.

In their report, the two call for a consolidated "transportation-accountability board" that would plan, fund and audit regional transportation improvements in King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties.

In a separate move, state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said yesterday that he would introduce legislation to consolidate in one board the planning functions of several existing transportation agencies "that are pulling us in different directions."

"There are a lot of decisions being made separately, in isolation from each other," he said. "I don't think that makes a lot of sense."

While Murray's proposal and the Discovery Institute's plan differ in details, each would merge some or all functions of at least four agencies:

• Sound Transit, the three-county authority established in 1996 to provide regional express buses, commuter rail and light rail.

• The Regional Transportation District, another three-county entity created last year to propose highway projects and taxes to voters.

• The Puget Sound Regional Council, a four-county planning agency that writes the region's long-range transportation plan and distributes federal dollars.

• The state Department of Transportation, whose many regional roles include building state highways and operating the state ferries.

Murray's consolidated panel also would absorb the planning functions of the Seattle monorail board. Chapman and Agnew would leave the monorail board out until — and unless — it proposed extensions beyond the city limits.

Murray proposes a directly elected board. Chapman and Agnew suggest a panel with some members elected, others appointed by the governor.

A consolidated agency would provide a forum in which highways, transit and other competing proposals could be evaluated, compared and decided, Agnew and Chapman say. Such a forum doesn't exist today, they add.

"Our region is stuck," Agnew said. "We're not building anything. We can't reach a consensus."

But the idea got a cool reception from King County Executive Ron Sims, who also serves as Sound Transit's board chairman. "We like moving around the chairs as if it changes the result," he said.

Governance isn't what's keeping the region from addressing its traffic woes, Sims said. The problem is a lack of resources and a culture that resists doing anything.

But Chapman, a former Seattle city councilman and Washington secretary of state, said Portland, Vancouver, B.C., and New York City already have the kind of consolidated board he and Agnew propose.

The Discovery Institute report is full of ideas — some new, some not:

• Impose tolls on new general-purpose highway lanes. Replace the Highway 520 bridge with a tunnel. Put lids over big stretches of Interstate 5 in Seattle.

• Streamline permitting. Reprogram Sound Transit's light-rail money to build a monorail down I-5 from Northgate to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport instead. Find ways to get adjacent landowners, whose property values will increase, to pay a bigger share of the cost of transportation projects.

But unless the governmental superstructure is simplified, "I don't see how you could get this comprehensive a vision to be considered," said Agnew, a former Snohomish County councilman.

"We're so compartmentalized in transportation that we can't look at the big picture."

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or

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For More Information: Cascadia Project — Bruce Agnew
208 Columbia St. — Seattle, WA 98104
206-292-0401 x113 phone — 206-682-5320 fax