Is Seattle its Own Greatest Road Block?

Here's hoping our battles over the Alaskan Way Viaduct and other transportation developments will le

It’s almost too good to imagine: The year is 2016, and burly guys in hardhats and blaze-orange vests have swept up the last of the dust from all of Seattle’s transportation construction megaprojects. The State Route 99 tunnel under downtown, the new State Route 520 floating bridge and the University Link light rail extension to the University of Washington are open. Cars are moving at the speed limit during rush hour, no one is complaining about the 520 tolls, and the light rail service is always on time.

OK, maybe that last bit is far-fetched, but it’s a fact that someday, all of the enormous construction projects that politicians, businesspeople, environmental activists and ordinary voters have been arguing about since the beginning of the century will be finished. Hard to believe. Was it all worth it? And what now?

Although the roots of the conflict go back decades, the near-destruction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake raised the stakes, and the Great Seattle Transportation Wars began. Partisans—especially those who love or hate cars—vowed to remake Seattle (and a region stretching from Everett to Tacoma and Issaquah to Bremerton) into a movable nirvana. And because virtually everyone drives a car, rides a bus or takes a train at some point, the potential impact of the decisions touched everyone as few decisions do. Every citizen had “skin in the game,” as the saying goes, and no one was willing to give ground.

Part of what made the debate so difficult was a cherished Seattle (and regional) value: On big decisions that affect broad swaths of the community, neighbors should consult—sometimes ad nauseam—with each other.

For some, it was a good idea gone bad; the so-called “Seattle process” meant endless rounds of meetings and votes that never resulted in a decision people could accept. After years of struggle, folks were exhausted and frustrated. Seattle musician Dave Matthews, speaking on KUOW-FM, joked that he wanted the Viaduct debate settled “in a street fight or a boxing match.”

Finally, an advisory vote in August 2011 settled the matter for good, and the combatants laid down their arms. Bob Drewel, the executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), a planning, transportation and economic development organization made up of elected officials from King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties, says other cities have similar painful debates about megaprojects. For example, Boston’s “Big Dig” freeway project took more than 30 years to plan and construct. On average, Drewel says, Seattle’s debate on replacing the Viaduct took “a tad bit longer” than other cities. It’s not the torture itself that’s different, he says, “it’s the length of time the torture takes.”

The famed Seattle process might have succeeded if Seattle had followed principles that have worked in the past. So says Jim Diers, the first director of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods and now a consultant on grassroots organizing. Citizens saw transportation decision making, particularly on the Viaduct replacement, as “top down,” he says; average Joes and Janes believed that those who move the levers of power made the important decisions before asking them what they thought, and then proceeded without regard for public opinion. That sparked fury, leading to ballot initiatives, lawsuits and a “throw the bums out” attitude. People wanted to gain more control over decisions affecting their daily lives.

If elected officials and technocrats had asked citizens what they wanted before making their moves—and if ordinary people believed that decision makers were genuinely listening to their ideas—Diers says, the decisions might have gone down more easily. As a model, he points to the Families and Education Levy, which former Mayor Norm Rice proposed after consulting with more than 2,000 members of the public in the late 1980s. Designed to finance programs for Seattle’s children, the measure passed in 1990, and it has been renewed by voters three times, most recently in 2011.

“People have voted overwhelmingly for it because it was their idea,” Diers says. He acknowledges that transportation is more complex, and that other parties, particularly the state and federal governments, want their say as well as voters. But, he says, if the city had followed a more authentic “bottom up” Seattle process, the past 10 years or so might have been less painful. But others might say that more process is exactly what we don’t need.

Perhaps the biggest structural obstacle to smoother transportation decision making is the atomization of responsibility. In bus transit alone, several agencies are involved: King County Metro, Sound Transit, Pierce County Transit, Community Transit (Snohomish County) and others. Though the agencies attempt to cooperate and coordinate, the systems can’t operate as efficiently as a single entity, as does Portland, Oregon’s TriMet, which has overseen the Portland mass transit system since 1969.

King County went with a single big entity before, and it worked. Lake Washington literally stank of sewage in the early 1950s as suburban cities dumped effluent into the lake. Fed up, voters created a regional authority, the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, or “Metro,” in 1958 to clean up. The agency successfully turned Lake Washington into an urban playground, but a court challenge brought by interests that didn’t like how the agency was organized ended Metro in 1990, and the area has shied away from creating new regional government authorities ever since. (Sound Transit is an exception, but it operates an independent transit system alongside King County Metro and others.) That frustrates former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (father of Jordan Royer, who contributed to this feature), who believes fragmentation hobbles economic development, including infrastructure. “The region is a global economic power, but we’re organized to be a collection of public entities pulling in different directions,” he says. “I don’t know how we can survive this way economically.”

Despite the pain, Seattle may look back at the current era as a pivot point. The completion of the S.R. 99 tunnel, the S.R. 520 bridge and University Link in 2016 may put to rest any lingering doubts about the value to the region of megaprojects. Drewel sees regional benefits in the tunnel’s scheduled 2015 opening. Until now, the intense focus on replacing the Viaduct left little room for discussing other regional needs, such as the repair or reconstruction of the half-century-old section of Interstate 5 running through the city, almost certainly a multibillion-dollar project. Now that the public has experience making up its mind about big projects, Drewel says, future decisions “are going to be made with a greater sense of appropriate urgency and understanding.”

Another observer, Rob Johnson, executive director of Transportation Choices, a Seattle nonprofit working to expand non-auto alternatives, goes further. He says once the current megaprojects are finished, people will see a kind of transcendent harmony in how it all works, and sense that the community has moved to a higher level. “We are on the cusp of a transformational change,” he says. “2016 is when people’s eyes will be opened.”

 

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