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Puget Sound Transportation 2002

September 5, 2002

Tough choices ahead at the ballot box

  • Is this any way to plan a transportation system?
    University of Washington

    Traffic backups
    Photo by Jon Silver
    Traffic backups are a way of life around the Puget Sound, but Referendum 51 would seek to alleviate some of the congestion with highway-improvement projects and other programs. Interstate 5 in Seattle (above) would not be affected by the proposal.

    On Nov. 5 voters in Seattle, King County and throughout Washington will determine the future of our city and region.

    Although we will be voting on various transportation measures, the choices we make will have extraordinary consequences for our economic future and the form of our region. Unfortunately, rather than finding a ballot with a logically interrelated transportation plan, we will see a series of measures that independently seek to shape transportation policy.

    Each suggests a different future for our state and region, but these futures are only dimly understood. Although there is general agreement that we face a mobility crisis — at least in the Puget Sound region — we still do not have a coherent approach to addressing our transportation needs. Instead, the November ballot reflects a balkanized transportation-planning process.

    November choices

    In an ideal world, one might argue that we should simply have a moratorium on all transportation spending until we have a coherent plan to address our transportation needs. But that is completely unrealistic — we simply cannot wait to begin work on the backlog of pending projects. And, because the jurisdiction over different levels of transportation planning and construction is allocated to different governmental units, it is unlikely that a coherent plan would emerge quickly even if such a moratorium were possible.

    Instead, we need to focus on the choices we will face in November. Even though those who crafted the various referenda and initiatives may not have conceived them systematically, one way to evaluate them is according to whether they promise to make sense in a larger framework of transportation planning — we can ask how each adds to our complete transportation system, even if the authors of some of these measures conceived them as “stand-alone” measures.

    "The November ballot reflects a balkanized transportation planning process."

    The state Department of Transportation (DOT) is the agency with the broadest reach, both geographically and in terms of transportation modes. Although the DOT primarily focuses on road-building, it also oversees the ferries (considered part of the state highway system); mass transit (particularly in terms of HOV-lane construction and operation); rail transportation (both freight and passenger); and other areas such as local transportation programs.

    Like all units in state government, the DOT faces the challenge of trying to balance the very different needs of the eastern and western parts of the state. The range of its responsibilities is reflected in Referendum 51, which will be on November ballot.

    Referendum 51 would increase state gasoline taxes by 9 cents a gallon to fund improvements to highways, HOV lanes and railroads, and would provide grants for local projects and planning funds for projects such as replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

    Many of these measures were actually included in a previously approved state transportation plan, but that plan was to be funded by taxes on car-license tabs, and was effectively gutted when voters passed Initiative 695 in 1999. Should R-51 pass, these long-delayed improvements could go forward. If it fails, it is not clear how the state will ever succeed in funding its backlog of transportation projects.

    Eyman’s initiatives

    There will be one statewide initiative on the ballot that will also have major impacts on transportation improvements and funding, but its effect will be negative. Initiative 776, offered by Tim Eyman’s political-action committee, Permanent Offense, seeks to limit the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET, or car tabs) to $30 annually, and to invalidate any local initiatives that would increase car tabs to fund local projects.

    I-776 is specifically aimed at Sound Transit, but if approved and found constitutional, it would affect any other governmental unit that sought funding by increasing the MVET. The immediate impact of I-776 would be to cut available funds for light rail, commuter rail, regional express buses and other transportation improvements now funded through Sound Transit.

    Should I-776 succeed, a substantial component of regional mass transit funding would be lost, likely driving many commuters back to their cars. Rather than viewing our transportation network systematically with multiple modes working together, I-776 cuts support for mass transit and aims at a transportation system that depends solely on automobiles.

    Initiative 785, also offered by Permanent Offense, will not be on the November ballot, but may have enough signatures by December to go before the voters next year. I-785 seeks to fund transportation improvements by shifting funds in the existing state budget without raising taxes. Given the budget deficits the state now faces, cuts in state services are already likely in the next biennium (2003-05). I-785 would make anticipated cuts in other segments of the state budget even more severe. The economic impact on the state would likely be crippling.


    Seattle voters will also be able to vote on the Seattle Popular Monorail Plan, which would build a monorail line from the north side of Ballard to West Seattle and pay the $2 billion cost with bonds funded from a 1.4 percent tax on car tabs (MVET) that would last until the monorail debt obligation is retired (at least 25 years and potentially longer).

    This project is unusual in that it emerged from an independent effort by monorail advocates. Citizens of Seattle have twice voted in favor of monorail initiatives: In 1997 they approved an initiative for a 41-mile monorail system that advocates claimed could be built for about $2 billion without public funds. Then, in November 2000, Seattle voters approved a two-year, $6 million monorail study. The present ballot proposal is the result of that study.

    The new monorail plan proposes a $2 billion, 14-mile line funded by taxpayers through the MVET. Although monorail planners have drawn a citywide monorail map, there is no funding source identified to pay for future lines. Presumably, if the first line is approved, voters will be asked for additional tax increases for future extensions.

    "In an ideal world, we’d have a moratorium on all transportation spending until we had a coherent plan."

    Because the measure is a city of Seattle proposal, no lines extend beyond the city limits — those who commute from outside the city will either not use the system, or, if they do, they will effectively be subsidized by Seattle taxpayers who paid the entire capital cost.

    The “go-it-alone” approach is reflected as well in the decision by the monorail planners not to seek any federal funding support. The monorail proposal seems poorly related to regional mobility needs and, routed from West Seattle to Ballard, does not address regional “bottlenecks” such as Highway 509 and Highway 167, the Lake Washington bridges, or Interstate 405 and Interstate 5. For $2 billion, which opponents claim is the largest Seattle city tax increase ever, the plan actually seems to do little to address major regional transportation needs.

    Region in crisis

    It is not known which, if any, of these measures will pass in November.

    If R-51 fails, it is not clear how the state or the region will go forward to address mobility needs. The last time the region faced a crisis of this magnitude was the late 1960s. Then, state and regional leaders met and crafted a plan that led to the series of ballot measures collectively known as Forward Thrust.

    Today the region is larger and more diverse; many citizens have shown an unwillingness to tax themselves for investments in regional infrastructure. Whether our leaders could craft a new version of Forward Thrust to address our mobility crisis is not clear, but without such an approach — a coherent, systematic multimodal transportation plan that addresses all regional needs — how will we ever make real progress?

    Jeffrey Ochsner, FAIA, is a professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington, where he has taught architectural design, urban design, historic preservation and architectural history.

    He served as chair of the Department of Architecture from 1996 to 2002.

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