When it comes to growth policy and traffic analysis, King County officials seem to be driving in opposite directions at the same time. While denying there's anything seriously wrong with their growth-management techniques, officials have lately opened the way to improving them.
Last week, King County Executive Ron Sims called for an independent review of the county's traffic-forecasting methods. Obscure as the subject may sound, it is crucially important, since the county determines whether to approve new housing developments based on their predicted traffic impact. The county makes these predictions using a computer model. Several Eastside activists and one local transportation expert contend that the county's model is rigged to give low-ball estimates, thereby easing the way for developers. A county hearing examiner is presently evaluating those concerns in the appeal of a permit for the Greens at Beaver Crest, a housing development on the Sammamish Plateau.
In a letter to Seattle Weekly a few weeks ago, Sims wrote, "We are not secretly plotting or cooking the books." He also wrote, however, that he looks forward to the hearing examiner's "opinion as to whether there may have been better ways for King County to measure future growth and traffic [in the Greens case]. We welcome that independent assessment."
But while Sims was welcoming the assessment, the county's attorneys were busy trying to bury it. As reported here last week, King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng filed a brief with Hearing Examiner Stafford Smith, asserting that Smith "does not have jurisdiction to review the County's computer model. . . . The County Council has accepted the model as valid and the Hearing Examiner is bound by the Council's decision." Besides, Maleng writes, Smith "is not a traffic engineer and is not technically competent to determine which engineering judgments are 'better.'"
A few days later, the county headed in a new direction. Sims called for "an independent team of transportation experts" to conduct a "top to bottom review of our transportation model," adding, "I believe we have a very professional modeling team. . . . However, it is always important to solicit review and guidance. . . ."
On the Sammamish Plateau, where protests against the county's growth plans have been loudest, some observers see Sims' latest move as an empty political gesture. Longtime slow-growth activist Michael Costello predicts, "This will be another whitewash."
But Joe Savage, the Bellevue transportation engineer who uncovered a number of questionable county practices while working on the Greens case, views Sims' latest initiative as "really encouraging." The review committee will be overseen by the Puget Sound Regional Council, which "has a very good reputation," Savage says. "They're probably one of the top five regional planning agencies in the country." Savage adds that PSRC transportation chief King Cushman "is one of the most ethical people I've ever met. He's not going to buckle under to any political pressure." The review committee is supposed to offer its recommendations by early next year.