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Bold Steps Needed to End Region’s Malaise

Published in Puget Sound Business Journal

A recent forum held by the Building Owners and Managers Association of Seattle featured state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald and King County Council Member Rob McKenna, who were speaking on state and regional proposals before voters next month and next spring.

MacDonald and McKenna are knowledgeable and dedicated public servants. One can’t help but feel a contrast between their sense of purpose and our public fecklessness. In their stubborn determination to stretch us toward both responsibilities and possibilities, they seem almost better than we deserve.

The times are out of joint. Public opinion surveys by Elway Research tell us people want more money spent on most major state functions but aren’t willing to support the effort as taxpayers. Our region has grown big yet the economy has stalled, leaving us both congested and stagnant. We feel at once overbuilt and pressed against limits.

What would most benefit this region is years of slow population growth and sustained physical investment – the reverse of what we’ve just seen. Population stability is likely to be provided by our sagging job base and declining per capita income. Decades of data show that in-migration is driven by job creation, and outflow of people is prompted by the reverse.

Much harder to achieve is a commitment to make sustained and sweeping investments in our future. Indeed, slow economic times tend to breed a bunker mentality that works against any long-term vision. Yet, it can be different. The nation still benefits from public investments made by FDR and the New Deal in the midst of, and in response to, the Great Depression.

Cut to the chase. We need what our system of government disallows: a benevolent dictator. Most notable city-regions were built by such persons, from Peter the Great of Russia to Robert Moses of New York. Our benign despot might cut through political gridlock with the following steps of tough love:

* Face the collapse of the consensus model. Our culture long prided itself on an inclusive town-meeting model. We were, in pollster Stuart Elway’s phrase, “the land of process.” This model honored Scandinavian roots and it seemed to work. Then, starting in the early 1990s, the model was undone by four factors:

– The death of egalitarianism. Our economic profile enjoyed a broad middle class whose backbone was high-pay, blue-collar jobs at Boeing. But a decade ago, the company shed 25,000 jobs and the slack was taken up by growth in information technology, a sector whose vastly unequal incomes were a boon for some and a breeding ground for resentment by others.

– Reactionary liberalism. New wealth and rampant growth alienated much of the political spectrum from labor-left to “deep ecology” anarchists – an effective majority in Seattle. It’s been said this is a city for people who don’t like cities, a city where people band together for half an hour to oppose something before they disperse into the woods. Floating in our collective psyche is the fantasy of a cyberdruid, fully “wired” yet living in the state of nature. Hence our ambivalence toward economic growth.

– Radical populism. The consensus model was based on a brand of civility-plus behavior we called “niceness.” Radical populists saw consensus as no better than appeasement, and judged it vulnerable. Initiatives displaced political politeness with a direct appeal to the unwashed majority. Through a tool dating from the Progressive Era, those on the right launched a direct assault on our civic culture.

– Exhaustion of our bequest. From the 1950s through the 1970s, there was a consensus to invest and build our education, transportation and energy systems. This met the needs of the time and left a legacy of unused capacity that masked the decline in consensus. By the early 1990s, we had used up our inheritance and faced a capacity crunch, minus agreement on how to meet it. A working majority evaporated in the face of tougher trade-offs between economic vitality and environmental preservation.

Today, Seattle and the region must respond to the collapse of the consensus model by focusing on the next generation of investments that will serve quality of life. The task is to add capacity in ways that enhance quality. But first, we have some housekeeping to do.

* Shut down Sound Transit. After exploring every known form of self-inflicted damage, Sound Transit on Sept. 27 went where no agency has gone before in credibility destruction. In court it argued that the 1996 plan approved by voters included the power to collect an unlimited amount of taxes over any time period until the entire light-rail system is complete.

This “whatever it takes” position derives from Resolution 75 of the Sound Transit board, which was referenced in the ballot title but not shown to voters. In arguing dubious legalisms at a time of shredded credibility, it’s clear the agency has taken leave of its political senses. As an entity, Sound Transit should be spun into the outer darkness and its functions reassigned.

The fact that voters stepped up to the line on a big hit of $3.9 billion for light rail has taken a cruel twist. What could have proven a pace-setting willingness to make commitments has been betrayed by events. Sound Transit’s latest move adds the injury of an attempted tax raid to the insult of the South “line to nowhere.” The Sound Transit brand name has become worthless. It’s time to bench this player and find a replacement.

* Discipline the initiative process. Is the Monorail proposal visionary or loopy? Initiatives are a flawed way to make law on complex issues. The legislative process is inherently superior in its ability to winnow alternatives and weed out defects, yet we are stuck with initiatives. There are two steps that can be taken.

First, outlaw paid signature gatherers, ending a practice that violates the premise of grass-roots involvement. Next, require that each initiative be drafted by the Legislature’s legal staff and, if it qualifies for the ballot, be reviewed by the state Supreme Court before it goes to a vote. It’s time to end the charade of passing unconstitutional measures that are tossed out by the courts.

These steps won’t stop kitchen-table legislators. But they will limit offerings to those with genuine popular support, while sparing us expensive and exhausting battles over defective proposals.

* Ignore the Lunatic Left. A sad chapter in the Referendum 51 saga is a boycott by transit advocates who say the package spends too much on highways. At a time when the region has committed almost $4 billion to an all-transit package and city voters are considering monorail transit, this dog-in-the-manger stance is unworthy. And it gets worse.

A few days ago, a respected elder statesmen of transportation policy met with 1000 Friends of Washington, a growth management advocacy group, and asked what it would take to win their support for R-51. He was told they oppose any measure that would fund even one mile of general-purpose highway lanes.

Recently the Transportation Choices coalition won a challenge forcing Tim Eyman to scrap use of their name-phrase as part of an initiative title. The coalition should also adhere to truth-in-packaging. Transit theologians view auto use as morally wrong and seek to lure drivers into a sort of 12-step recovery program. Their advocacy of buses and rail is fine, but they have no interest in a balanced range of transportation choices. Their position marginalizes them with respect to rational solutions.

* Enforce regionalism. Lake Washington is a five-mile-wide body of water that divides parts of the same county into two political worlds. Moreover, the Eastside is a place where Bellevue, Redmond and Kirkland pursue separate futures. Perhaps nowhere else in America is provincial micro-thinking so dominant in such a small space.

We need a replacement model. Two decades ago, urbanologist Jane Jacobs offered the persuasive framework of “city-regions” as the real economic units. Metropolitan development consultant Christopher Leinberger has refined an “urban core strategy” from Jacobs’ work.

A few years back, Bellevue rightly revolted against being labeled a “suburb.” It’s an urban core in a constellation of cores that are activity nodes within the urban region. Commute volumes are similar both ways between Seattle and the Eastside. The busiest intersection in King County is on the Bellevue-Redmond line. The two corridors richest in transit ridership are downtown to Northgate, and trans-lake between Redmond and downtown via the University District and Lake Union. Static, isolationist thinking needs to give way to a dynamic, interactive model that reflects the reality of the region.

* Bolster the tax base. Gov. Gary Locke has proposed to end this state’s unusual ban on tax increment financing so we can reinvest a portion of revenue in public infrastructure. It’s a good first step but more is needed.

In the late 1990s, investor money worldwide flowed into local companies, boosting the market value of firms such as Microsoft, McCaw, Amazon.com and RealNetworks, and adding at least $300 billion to the net worth of their employees. Part of this gain went for top-end personal consumption on luxury cars, yachts and nouveau chateaux at inflated prices while much of the rest went up in smoke as paper losses. Almost none of the gain was captured to support public investments that might keep leading companies here while attracting others.

Even now, it makes sense to treat personal income as property, applying a flat percentage tax at a level similar to the effective property tax rate. Progressive impact could be achieved the same way it is with the property tax on seniors – by a low-income exemption. To round out the picture, the value of exercised stock options would be computed as personal income.

Upper-income households in this state are among the most lightly taxed in America. This has been touted as a business edge yet by narrowing the base it shifts more of the tax burden onto business. Nor did tax-free personal income stop the Boeing brass from decamping to Chicago. At a time when funding for transportation and education is being crunched, the discretionary dollars of economic winners should be tapped.

It’s also time to apply congestion pricing to I-5, I-90, I-405 and SR-520. Funding for our transportation network is in a deep hole. Computerized collection of variable tolls, so-called “value pricing” keyed to congestion levels, offers a double benefit. It boosts revenues to accelerate the schedule for building replacement structures and new capacity. It also deters peak-hour use of major roadways, thus closing part of gap between demand and current capacity.

* Plan elegantly and build boldly. There could be no better time than today’s doldrums for Seattle and the region to rediscover itself through quality-of-life investments in physical infrastructure. Transportation corridors can be community disrupters or connectors, unadorned roadways or scenic parkways, places of choice or places of compulsion, degraders or enhancers of the urban experience.

To be worthy of a great city-region, intermodal corridors should be safe and strong, robust and redundant, marked by amenities and design features that reflect local pride and a sense of place. Some steps are simple, like the bas-relief and wording at the Mount Baker tunnel that reads, “Seattle, Portal to the North Pacific.” Others are more complex, like the suggestion Rob McKenna offers of a direct route from the Evergreen Point Bridge to Lake Union, without use of I-5 and minus the Mercer mess.

Former Seattle City Council Member Bruce Chapman was a U.S. ambassador in Vienna, a city famed for urban design. Today, as head of Seattle’s Discovery Institute, Chapman urges us to “think boldly, regionally and far ahead” as we make urban investments. He argues it is more feasible to gain support for a comprehensive vision than for a partial solution, easier to build coalitions on the basis of widespread benefit than to win over narrow constituencies, more possible to pry open wallets for investments that benefit coming generations than for interim fixes that let us limp through the next few years.

Chapman’s big-picture approach makes sense. Can it happen or will we remain stuck in befuddlement? Dan Evans, the last governor widely acknowledged as a leader, was wont to say in moments of combat with the Legislature, “What this state needs is a benevolent dictator – strike ‘benevolent’ if necessary.”

Our political system is not designed around dictatorship but it does depend on the apparently vanished quality known as leadership. Political aspirants and incumbents who dare to offer bold steps out of the morass may be surprised at the public response. And if they don’t try, why seek to hold elected office?

GLENN R. PASCALL’s column appears regularly in the Business Journal. He is a Seattle-based economic and public policy consultant, and a senior fellow at the Center for the New West.