Why We Can’t Have Nice Things?

It’s a cliche of every local election. The dynamic candidate, in search of Your Vote, is going to Do Something about Seattle’s awful traffic. Every state legislative candidate, every mayoral hopeful, every would-be county and city council member, and more than a few aspiring school board members, all pledge fealty to fixing Seattle’s traffic.

And then they get into office, and traffic seems to keep getting worse. Why don’t efforts to fix it work?

At the city level, the answer is obvious: nobody tries. Seattle doesn’t do transportation projects; it does real estate projects using transportation money. For the last decade, while bridge and road repairs back up and the earthquake-damaged Magnolia Bridge quietly awaits collapse, the city of Seattle has spent virtually all of its discretionary capital funds on first the Mercer Mess and then Mike McGinn’s streetcar folly. Traffic engineers correctly predicted that The Mess – aka the Paul Allen Beautification Project – would actually make South Lake Union traffic worse. But it made Allen’s extensive SLU real estate holdings prettier, which was far more important – at least to Seattle City Council – than gridlock or climate change or stuff.

Similarly, city leaders were so anxious to build the South Lake Union Trolley that they didn’t even slow down to notice its acronym, much less its lack of passengers. But fixed rail projects permanently boost teal estate values, and so McGinn and now the council have soldiered on, expanding the network at an exorbitant cost per mile with projected riders drawn almost entirely from existing bus routes. It makes sense only when you realize that transportation isn’t the point; corporate welfare for developers is.

And those are the relatively good transportation policies. For the truly awful ones, turn to Olympia and our state legislature.

The downtown deep-bore tunnel, of course, was a state creation. It was then-Gov. Christine Gregoire and the state’s then-Democratically-controlled legislature who rammed the project down Seattle’s throats, eventually “winning” a vote (after voters had previously rejected the approach) by insisting that a tunnel would be built even if Seattle voters rejected it. Every warning from tunnel critics – that it was insanely expensive, risky, used largely unproven technology, and was a climate change-enhancing fiasco – has proven to be true, if not understated. But even if Bertha quietly applies for help under the state’s Death With Dignity law, the tunnel project will be a success for its backers. Moving goods and people by providing a replacement for the damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct was never the point; enriching waterfront-area property owners was, and is.

But at least with these projects, something is being built. What’s being generated by the current iteration of the state legislature, particularly the Republican-controlled State Senate (unofficial motto: “Let’s screw with the libtards in Seattle!”), is far worse.

For the past two legislative sessions, the state government has had no transportation budget at all. You read that correctly. Projects already planned from past years were continued, but otherwise, nada. Why? Because Republicans – despite being, until this year, a numeric minority – managed to block the senate from considering a transportation bill because it wasn’t totally focused on roads and because it didn’t eviscerate public transit. Blocking the passage of any transportation budget at all at least accomplished one of these goals: without state funding, public transit agencies around the state have been forced to scale back or even close operations. True to form, even at a time of record ridership King County Metro had to scramble last year to avoid devastating cuts. Even then, suburban routes have been gutted and in-city routes remain hopelessly crowded and inadequate.

Which brings us to this year, when the state senate has finally decided that it really ought to offer some, any budget proposal. And what it has coughed up makes all of the transportation disasters listed above seem like, well, really good ideas.

Essentially, the Senate’s 16 year, $15 billion proposal parties like it’s 1959, freeways are swell, and “climate change” never happened. Over half the money goes directly to “highway improvements” disproportionate funding projects outside the Puget Sound region where most of the state’s population growth is happening. Public transit gets hosed. A poison pill requires $750 million in transit and multimodal funds to be redirected to the Motor Vehicle Fund if either a carbon tax or stricter fuel economy standards are imposed. Sound Transit’s request to let it ask local voters for $15 billion for the next stage in light rail funding – which isn’t even state money, just an ask to let ST ask local voters to tax ourselves – gets reduced to $11 billion. (“You don’t need to carry that baby for a full nine months, do you? Let’s cut it to six and a half!”) Even then, Republicans tie that provision directly to approval of several road mega-projects, most notably a major new north-south freeway in Spokane. Another jewel: beyond a gas tax increase, some of the proposed funding comes from transfers from sales tax revenues, putting pressure on other parts of the already-gutted state budget.

In short, after two years of obstruction, Senate Republicans have come up with an ideologically driven transportation bill that actively blocks action on climate change, defunds all types of public transit, pours enormous new funding into highway construction, and penalizes Seattle pretty much for the sake of penalizing Seattle. Har, har, har. Facepalm.

In terms of moving people and goods, this is why we can’t have nice things. Everybody’s got a transportation agenda. Sadly, none of those agendas actually promote, you know, transportation.

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