Vision Quest: Lack of Guts, Candor Strangle Seattle, the State, the Region

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Transportation is the lightning rod for this unease about ourselves. Can we move off dead center toward what feels like progress? Here are some potential directions.

Think boldly, regionally, and far ahead.

We need to be guided by a vision — a vivid sense of what we can be. How can Seattle combine European urban design features and American values? By adding multi-modal transportation capacity in ways that reconnect severed neighborhoods and reduce disruption to our quality of life and environment.

Thinking regionally means seeing ourselves as we really are — an integrated economic, social and geographic unit — and casting off illusions of separateness.

King County has two-thirds as many jobs as people while Pierce and Snohomish counties have one-third. King relies on its neighbors to house many of its workers while the bedroom counties rely on King to generate personal income for the region.

Within King, Seattle is at least as much a bedroom for the Eastside as the reverse. Traffic flows are complex, and everyone is connected. Beggar-thy-neighbor and go-it-alone strategies are obsolete and even harmful.

Thinking far ahead means focusing on investments that serve needs 50 years into the future (like the interstate highway system) or 100 years (like Seattle’s civic amenities from the Progressive Era).

Make the choices functional

Transportation is not an end in itself. It is the means to mobility and access. These are “rights” — but the way they are achieved is a choice.

Among modes of transport, mutual intolerance flourishes. Supporters of auto, bus or rail travel often adopt the view, “My way or no way.” While the “highway lobby” disdains transit, rail and bus zealots are at each other’s throats. Meanwhile, many transit advocates consider auto use inherently immoral so they support making car travel expensive and inconvenient, even when there is no practical alternative.

Another important choice is “value pricing” — the tradeoff between time and money on high occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes and other toll ways. Choice means a real range of alternatives. Starving transit for funds or making driving miserable creates compulsion — the opposite of choice.

Stop doing dumb things

A Metro bus passenger who gets off at the busy Montlake stop must run an obstacle course to reach a safe sidewalk. A Sound Transit rider who travels to the end of the South Line — the system’s first segment — would be in Tukwila, one mile from Sea-Tac Airport. That’s why it’s been called the “line to nowhere.”

A third of Metro’s buses are 60-foot models, which account for zero to one-eighth of the fleet in comparable systems. Replacing big buses with 24-foot and 40-foot vehicles would relieve downtown congestion and be more neighborhood-friendly.

One way to bring relief to motorists, at no cost: Shorten Seattle signal intervals to the cycle used in Los Angeles. Short intervals cut wait times at empty intersections, keep drivers alert for the green light, and dissuade running the light. One surprising indication this works: Auto insurance rates are markedly lower in L.A. than here.

Public confidence is eroded when mindless policies are adopted and dysfunctional operating procedures persist. It’s time for a management scrub to make the system more functional and to restore the sense that someone is in charge.

Galvanize leadership

The word on the street in Olympia is that the votes — but not the guts — were there for the 2002 Legislature to approve the same $8-billion transportation funding package it punted to the people as Referendum 51. Key members of both parties flaked at the crucial hour. Were they haunted by Tim Eyman’s ghost?

In the executive suite, is Gov. Gary Locke prepared to advocate bold transportation policies in the same way he has embraced education reform?

California Gov. Gray Davis, like Locke, is a moderate Democrat better known for competence than charisma. In his first-term campaign Davis said he wanted to be “the education governor.” Once in office, the state’s mobility crunch made him a believer. In his re-election campaign this year, Davis boasts he’s become “the transportation governor” who upgraded one-fifth of California’s miles of road. Could it happen here?

There are times when the riskiest course is seeking to avoid risk. Unless we grapple with the tough issues, we will be fated to lurch from crisis to crisis.

We are somewhere beyond congestion. Our roadways are on the brink of functional collapse. It’s not only a matter of creeping along in traffic at a steady 20 mph, as motorists do each day on the San Diego Freeway in L.A.

Rather, it’s constant frustration when faced by street blockages, lane closures, and repair shutdowns to shore up bridges and other structures before they shake or sink. The system is at a point that delays and also betrays our expectations of mobility.

Stop the drift into crisis

Recently I served as moderator for a transportation forum. Luckily for Washington state, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on transportation. I asked Murray if she’s getting support from the state that she needs to make our case in D.C. Her reply: It’s hard to compete with states that put up their own money to match federal funding. Murray noted that we lag in this regard — and the problem will worsen if Referendum 51 fails.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, was at the forum and took a tough question from Sally Jewell, the straight-shooting head of REI and member of the governor’s Competitiveness Council. Jewell asked why the Legislature didn’t simply hike the gas tax on its own rather than bucking the issue to the voters. Her question drew a round of applause from the audience of 300.

Chopp’s reply: Our polls showed that 70 percent of the voters would have been steamed about their taxes being raised without a public vote, and they might react. Chopp implied this mood would have automatically resulted in the “defeat” of the tax hike.

A heckler asked Chopp why we don’t simply dissolve the Legislature and hire pollsters to run the government. More applause from the audience, which seemed to be longing for a truth that’s been almost lost in Olympia: When it comes to poltical capital, or credibility and clout, it’s “use it or lose it.” Lying idle, it becomes a wasting asset. The last practitioner of this lesson in leadership was Gov. Dan Evans, who left the governor’s office 25 years ago.

Enter Tim Eyman. One of the system’s bottom feeders, Eyman has resurfaced in the political swamp. Politics abhors a vacuum and if elected officials don’t set the agenda, someone else will.

It’s sobering to realize that the two individuals with the greatest power to shape our future are Boeing CEO Phil Condit and populist vigilante Eyman. One man has proven he has no loyalty to the region while the other — with contempt even for his supporters — is loyal only to himself.

Eyman made himself notorious by siphoning campaign contributions to his own use. Now he brags that notoriety “is a plus” because it assures media turnout when he rolls out a new initiative; in this case I-776, slashing taxes that fund Sound Transit buses and rail.

If three years ago, someone were assigned to destroy Sound Transit’s credibility and possessed diabolical powers to do the job, they could not have surpassed the actual course of events. Leadership on Sound Transit is so lacking that it is left to Eyman to say what everybody knows: the emperor has no clothes.

We are caught in the perfect political storm. State and local elected officials, shell-shocked by Eyman’s “permanent offense,” retreat into ever more timid behavior that provides ever more running room to the ballot initiative industry propped up by paid signature gatherers.

Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, a 30-year legislator and one of the system’s authentic heroes, ruefully notes Eyman’s “negative brilliance.”

With unerring instinct, Eyman homes in on the system’s weakest link and when it has been demolished, he shifts focus to the next target.

Anti-terrorism experts say two factors are crucial: robustness — the ability to recover quickly — and redundancy — quick activation of fallback options. Absent leaders with guts and candor, we search in vain for the political equivalent.

In 1939, faced by the contrast between ineffectual democratic leadership and dictators who knew exactly what they wanted, the poet W.B. Yeats wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Our situation is different, yet his words are hauntingly relevant.

For this civic culture, the hard part is to foster the necessary arguments we never had. As a New York friend says about her city, we must be willing “to argue to reach agreement.”

We need affirmative choices for the future. To get there requires a new kind of political dialogue that lets us talk about what really matters, supports a meaningful debate where reasonable people can differ, provides a process that hammers out agreements and commits us to decisions, so we can move ahead on a plan of action.

Glenn Pascall is a senior fellow at the Cascadia Project of the Discovery Institute. He is a regional economist at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington and economics columnist for the Puget Sound Business Journal.