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Let’s Build Transport System on Common Ground

Original Article

Fueled by gas tax increases and voter approval of Sound Transit’s second phase, the red cones are out for $8 billion in transportation-related construction — the most in state history. In a dreary economy, you would think that would be cause for political consensus on how to keep this job-creating monster well fed.

Instead there is a nasty aftertaste from the state legislative session with small businesses feeling particularly over-taxed and over-regulated. Republicans and Democrats try to gain advantage while the Tea Party holds its protests, and the latest Pew Center poll shows confidence in elected leaders at an all-time low of 25 percent.

Meanwhile, decisions made on the Alaskan Way Viaduct and State Route 520 are being challenged by Seattle’s mayor while the structurally challenged South Park Bridge is closing and cuts in transit service are looming.

It is a perfect time to put aside differences on decisions already made and find common ground for creation and retention of jobs. No other cause is greater or more urgent.

Start with the viaduct. The cobbled-together State Route 99 waterfront coalition of business, labor, maritime and (some) environmental groups that supported the deep-bore tunnel for the viaduct replacement and backed Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature has stayed together and gained strength.

The Port of Seattle Commission’s support for $300 million to take down the viaduct and continuing low bids for state transportation projects have steeled the coalition’s resolve and allowed it to focus on reaching out to fragile maritime businesses wary of the tunnel as well as transit advocates still waiting for their part of the deal.

The coalition could be a valuable ally in Olympia for the mayor and Seattle City Council in completing projects such as the Mercer Corridor in South Lake Union, begun under the voter approved “Bridging the Gap” initiative. The coalition also could be open to new ideas from the mayor on transit, bike and pedestrian investments.

Similarly, Seattle and Eastside leaders could find common ground on the State Route 520 and Interstate 5 bottleneck. Mayor Mike McGinn wants light rail planned now on the SR 520 corridor. A broad-based coalition is equally steadfast that delay to add light rail will kill jobs. It notes that engineering decisions have been made and a popular vote set the rail corridor for Interstate 90.

Getting people out of cars does not have to mean rail. New mobility hubs at the University of Washington and park-and-ride lots, including South Kirkland, are incorporated into the state Transportation Department’s 520 plan. They can transform the dead space of park-and-ride lots into a multi-modal hub of housing, retail and transportation choices including carpools and Microsoft’s Connector (and you can plug in your new electric car).

Let’s find common transit ground and move on to a bigger challenge advanced by the mayor — the prospect of a wider State Route 520 dumping cars onto an already overtaxed I-5.

According to the state transportation department, rebuilding the underlying support system for the I-5 corridor from Northgate to Seattle’s central business district is an expensive and necessary project we can no longer avoid.

Good ideas have been floated. More direct access north and south transit ramps from 520 is one such idea. Another is tolling the center reversible lanes and making them transit friendly and bi-directional 24 hours to relieve bottlenecks at Northgate and at I-90 when the switch in direction is made daily.

An I-5 makeover adds billions to the package. Assuming Seattle and suburban communities can rally around an investment list for new transportation projects, other daunting challenges remain. Voters approved transportation tax increases because they believed better transportation would relieve their daily job commute and give them more time with their families. In many parts of the region (I-5 in Everett and Tacoma and I-405 around Bellevue), it has. And they believe in transit, as evidenced by the second Sound Transit vote.

But now there are fewer jobs and congestion has eased. How do we convince folks trying to save their houses that they need to raise their taxes (again) — and that they need to pay additional tolls as our society rightly moves to alternative fuels and electricity to power transportation while we undercut its basic funding from petroleum taxes?

While infrastructure investment is one of the best government programs, it carries with it an obligation to spend smarter. We will take up the issue of reforming our transportation planning, financing and operations in a future article.

BRUCE AGNEW is director of the Cascadia Center for Regional Development at the Discovery Institute in Seattle.