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Puget Sound Transportation Projects

Analysis of the Failure of the Roads and Transit Plan

Disclaimer: I am not a transportation engineer nor do I work for any of the involved parties. However, I have lived in the areas affected for over 30 years, including living and working in the areas most affected, and am currently a commuter in the RTID. I have based my analysis below upon having studied the projects for the past few years and my documentation of current and completed projects on this site, plus an analysis of the political bent of the areas affected.

The Roads and Transit plan has failed.

Why did it fail? Many reasons, but the biggest seems to be the following: It didn't seem to do enough, cost too much and the results took too long. Looking at other tax initiatives and issues on the ballot, voters are not in the mood to raise their taxes and in fact would rather lose services nd features by cutting them.

Unfortunately, the Puget Sound region is still going strong, with unheard of property value growth and no affect from the housing loan issues. Plus, there is new construction everywhere you turn. There is no way around it; whether it is a freeway expansion, new freeway or mass transit, between the cost of the land, construction materials and labor, it is going to be expensive to build just about anything.

Timing is also an issue. I think we all know that we are in big trouble, with 2 hours now rapidly becoming a "normal" commute time, and communities 50, 60 more miles away, and once considered rural farm towns, now being considered the suburbs of Seattle or Redmond. However, construction takes time. Permits and reviews take time. If you don't fully shut down a freeway or area, you double or triple the time. Yet, there are no alternate routes, so that is not an option. It is really hard as a voter to increase your costs, when the costs of everything you do are increasing, to support a project that could be 20, 30 or more years down the road.

I don't think it was clearly spelled out what benefits the projects would have, and/or what benefits they would have for a particular area. One big issue here that the elected officials don't get is that while we are a region, we still think locally. There is still a major rivalry between Seattle, Tacoma and Everett. While the money for each county was supposed to stay there, there was a concern, at least in Tacoma, that with so many high-value projects in Seattle money would flow North. And while there are a growing number of people like myself that live there and work North, due to the lack of affordable housing, there are still a large amount of people in Tacoma who don't go North and never intend to. For a plan such as this to work it must show not only the benefits to each subarea, but the safeguards to keep local funds local.

I also think the area has a long memory. In the 1970s there were plans to build a similar transportation network called Forward Thrust. Among other things it would have built new freeways and a light rail network from Everett to Tacoma and to the Eastside. Sound familiar? Oh yeah, and this would have cost just a little over a billion back then. However, it was also voted down due primarily to Boeing, the major employer here then, almost going out of business. Yes, we have large companies here and yes the economy is good, but we also have seen Boeing outsource and move away, we saw all the .coms fail in the very late 1990's. Who knows when Microsoft throws in the towel? And again, he problem with not thinking regionally. In the 1970s yes, you wanted to go to Seattle. Now, the job growth isn't downtown. It is in Redmond, Bellevue, Bothell, even Tacoma. Yet the politics make Seattle the priority for any project. We MUST change this way of thinking.

Another side issue, yet something mentioned as a reason the election failed, was the fight from environmentalists stating that this plan would only increase global warming. Some numbers state that the amount of people convinced by this reasoning would have been enough to ensure a yes vote. Unfortunately, I find major fault with the logic here. Yes, this was a ROADS and transit plan. However, if you look at the projects there were very few new roads. In fact, almost every single project was to remove a bottleneck; and most projects, including the new roads, included HOV and transit improvements. Yes, new roads may not dissuade people from driving and potentially could lead to more congestion, but making taking the bus or carpool more reasonable can remove more cars from the road. Even if one chooses to drive alone your carbon footprint will be much less if you aren't in stop and go traffic. And did I mention a large part of the plan included an electric – powered by hydropower – train system?

Now I do realize with the double threat of global warming and the increased cost of oil that yes, hop in your car and drive to work isn't sustainable, but once again, we all don't have the $5000 a month to live in downtown Redmond. Yes, there are a few people who could do that average 80 mile round trip commute on a bike but that is very rare. I may also point out that there is plenty of buildable land right outside of Redmond, but it is now designated as "protected". If we're gonna let Microsoft build space for 12,000 employees, perhaps it is time to rethink this protection. While we should push for more transit and examine any road plan closely, environmentalists would also do well to push more for both spreading corporate growth out (Tacoma has decent transit, low cost of living and buildable space, for example) and working out the housing issues (more controls?)

This is an unfortunate major loss for the region. While the ob growth still continues out of control in the Redmond/Seattle areas, there is literally no room for expansion for housing. A cheap house now is now $600,000; rent is over $1,000. Even 40, 50 miles away prices top $300,000 and $800 respectively. These prices will continue to increase and as people are forced to move further and further away, we will continue to increase congestion, sprawl and pollution. Furthermore, all these points come together to make the region, well, look bad. We are one of the only places I know of to have such a large collection of major, ground breaking companies and yet have a subpar road system and nearly nonexistent transit system. You don't see this happen in other cities that hold Fortune 500 companies such as New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. In fact, among other things, this is a potential big reason why Boeing is no longer headquartered in Seattle, but is in Chicago.

We are starting to see a paradigm shift with major companies in the area as well. At the company I work at, for example, they are already looking to move more production out of state as once again, there is just no way to expand in the local area, and transportation issues makes expanding out of the area impractical. Along with that, we are already beginning to lose higher level employees primarily due to very long commute times. Microsoft themselves have stated at various points decrying the lack of decent transportation and cite it as a reason much work is being outsourced, and reason for a possible move in the future.

Finally, this creates major issues for the critical projects that MUST be completed. The 520 bridge is a major example of this. We can't just ignore it, it critically needs to be replaced. Without the public support from this plan potentially we will either get a bridge without expansion room or loose out on features for the surrounding community. Even worse, what if this bridge does sink in a major windstorm? We aren't gonna wait years for funding and studies, we aren't gonna do without. It will become a major emergency project just like recent ones in California and Minnesota. And if that happens…there aren't gonna be years of environmental studies, waiting for the salmon to hatch, building the 5 mile noise control lid. It's gonna be rammed through, too bad to all of you. Do we really want that?

Case in point: the Alaskan Way Viaduct. While not part of this package, after the city fussed around and the voters couldn't decide, the state decided. We’re getting a new viaduct. Bigger of course to meet standards, but another concrete wall between the city and downtown. All because we couldn't pick a plan and nobody wanted to raise taxes or charge tolls.

So where do we go from here? Well, WSDOT has already begun some projects. Others, like the 520 Bridge Replacement will have to be done. Still others, like the final expansions of I-405 and the new freeways, will probably be postponed even further. Sound Transit will probably relist their projects, perhaps after 2009 when the initial light rail segment opens. I would expect that to be a much reduced plan; perhaps across 90 to Bellevue/Redmond, North to Northgate and a little South of the airport. Which I think is fine as it solves the majority of the problems.

Proposals have already been made to split up the plan by counties. This also seems reasonable. Discussion has been made to fund more projects by toll, implement congestion pricing (HOT lanes), perhaps even toll by distance. Much of this seems reasonable and some complaints about the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge aside, most people seem OK with tolling. I would also suggest that again, we really review planning for the area. How can we best structure where companies and housing are located, and with limited funds and will, connect the two?

Obviously things predicted but with no expectations need to be considered as well. Microsoft, a major driver of the congestion here, is having their own major issues and could potentially shrink or move away in the future. The major earthquake that we are overdue for would result in a lot of rebuilding. While the housing and job markets seem very stable, it is still primarily located in a couple regions and industries. A major paradigm shift or change could dramatically change our thinking.

I expect in the end we will see these projects come back, whether by another vote (Sound Transit 3?), or by some form of legislation (Narrows Bridge Tolls/Nickel Plan). I also unfortunately see the state losing some people as people move away to escape congestion, and we may possibly lose companies or business opportunities over this. I also unfortunately see costs increasing dramatically: costs to build the projects, costs to secure housing, costs to operate a business.

Only time will tell what actually happens and all we can hope is that we all learn from this and apply it to the next time.

Ben Brooks
November 15th, 2007