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Transportation Primer: How to Pop Popcorn Together

Original article
A new primer on transportation titled “How Do We Get There From Here,” co-authored by Bruce Agnew and Bruce Chapman of Seattle’s Discovery Institute, has arrived, as does spring with more daylight hours, to shed some light on the transportation morass.

This new report from the institute’s Cascadia Project is ambitious enough to tackle all the transportation dilemmas before us; crossing Lake Washington, getting some bang from the King Street Station, fixing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Mercer Mess. I found it useful both as a survey of our ills with trailblazing paths to traffic relief, but also discovering that not all the pathways lead in the right direction.

For example, the authors are tunnel happy. Despite prodigious costs, they like tunnels for Mercer Street, Lake Washington and Elliott Bay, and probably right under your house if you let them.

But in chapters ranging from the Canadian state-of-the-art toll road around Toronto to enhanced ferry service for Puget Sound, the report resonates with problems and solutions everywhere; Texas to British Columbia. The report also cites the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden as an example of how to get from Montlake to Medina.

Such exotic discourse on transportation aside, the authors’ strongest argument is that we need to consolidate too many local authorities into one, regional transportation-accountability board.

Agnew and Chapman call for a single board to oversee nearly every aspect of transportation planning in a four-county area (they include Kitsap County), a board directly elected by the people, and no responsibility for operations. Those stay with Metro and other operators. There are now six or seven distinct transit authorities in the immediate region, and 39 cities in King County, each with transportation opinions and enough elected officials with their fingers in transportation to fill a daily Sounder train. It’s not a matter of “whom do you call,” but how many calls do you have to make.

A fair example of the problem; both good and bad; is the newest idea of Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin to drum up interest in a $30 million transportation levy to put before Seattle voters. I don’t know if the idea can fly, but Conlin’s passion is genuine. He proposes raising $30 million a year, roughly $50 a year per homeowner, for basic infrastructure maintenance and repair; plus a new street utility tax and a tax on commercial parking. That last one has been once around the block and is contentious, but it keeps coming back.

“Well, you have to start with a position and maybe negotiate along the way,” Conlin admitted last week. “But the parking tax raises money ? real dollars; and we should consider all revenues to help us.” Conlin said basic road maintenance in the city is funded at $5.4 million this year, about $10 million below what’s needed to keep up with city arterials that are long past their design life.

Conlin’s support for roads shows the need for money. Whether the city can accept another levy for transportation on top of every other levy is the big question.

The Cascadia project writers, without even hearing of Conlin’s idea, anticipate the piecemeal nature of project funding by creating a central office where appeals and ideas go to live or die.

“In Washington, D.C., we’re hearing they are deluged with ideas from Puget Sound,” Chapman said Friday. “Everybody is going there to ask for money. The latest is a suburban monorail, separate from the Seattle one; should they get federal help?”

Chapman and Agnew propose a huge tent for all the transportation wishes and woes. From the Puget Sound Regional Council on down, everybody into the tent. That new, regional authority would pull Conlin’s idea into the tent, too. We’d all be in there, from monorail to Interstate 405 to moving freight, popping popcorn together.

(“How Do We Get There From Here” can be ordered through the Discovery Institute, 206-292-0401, or

James Vesely’s column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: