Another Inconvenient Truth

Gridlock as side effect: Solving it won't cure unlimited urban growth.

Another Inconvenient Truth

For years, Seattle area residents have complained about the region choking on traffic, and we’ve chided ourselves for gridlock on transportation projects. Now we’re about to choke on something else: transportation solutions and the bills that go with them.

Some say this is the piper being paid, long overdue expenditures for paths not taken. We’ve been a region notoriously reluctant to spend money on big-ticket mass-transit projects. We’ve also been derelict in maintaining existing infrastructure. Part of the result, they say, is the mobility mess we have today. Instead of paying now, we’re paying later for a lack of foresight and civic will.

Yet despite our reluctance to spend and our habit of second-guessing ourselves out of projects we’ve committed to, the region has still experienced massive growth. Millions of people now inhabit the metropolitan area, and more are coming. King County is packed with millionaires. The economy is creating more jobs for more employees than we can house, and home prices continue to skyrocket. Already, the $400,000 median home price elicits nostalgia.

So despite our shortcomings in transportation, we’ve experienced a boom that would be the envy of boomtowns everywhere.

The boom has had bad consequences for many people, beyond sticking workers with long commutes. It has priced many people out of the city and the region; it has damaged the environment and eroded our vaunted lifestyle.

Transportation spending has become the consensus solution to all of our problems: a way both to grow our way out of the downside of prosperity and to ensure even more prosperity in the future. It is such a consensus that former Gov. Gary Locke announced this week that an initiative to develop a regional transportation plan would be co-led by Locke and conservative KVI-AM (570) host and former GOP gubernatorial candidate John Carlson, Seattle’s face and voice of conservatism since the 1980s. Together, Locke and the usually antitax Carlson will help develop a multibillion-dollar plan for the 2007 ballot. Alongside that will be a proposal for the next phase of Sound Transit. Press estimates put the combined package at between $13 billion and $16 billion.

The combined total is important, because the Legislature has linked them: Both must be approved by the voters for either to take effect, to avoid what The Seattle Times described as a “roads vs. transit” fight. Which is to say that voters will not be able to approve environmentally friendly transit projects without also approving massive road building. This is the kind of political thinking that comes out of Olympia, where constituencies must be bought off with local benefits, even if they are at odds in the big picture. Will we ever get the full environmental benefits of mass transit if we also massively expand our road and highway capacity?

The $13 billion to $16 billion regional plan is not comprehensive, however. It does not include the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct ($3.6 billion with tunnel, excluding interest), Mayor Greg Nickels’ $1.8 billion package for fixing Seattle’s streets, or King County Executive Ron Sims’ “Transit Now” package that funnels an extra $50 million to $65 million per year for 10 years into bus service. Nor does it include replacement of the expanded state Route 520 floating bridge and connecting roadways, estimated at around $3 billion.

Even assuming we could afford it all, does it get us anywhere?

Over the weekend, I saw the Al Gore movie about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, which is incredibly convincing and compelling, a paean to earnestness in an era that lacks it. Of course, Gore must be forgiven his racism, being a future-oriented white male who worries about long-term consequences (see Mossback, “Dumbing Down Racism,” May 31), but he has never been more watchable. You walk out of the theater embarrassed to be driving home, only slightly reassured by the fact that at least you’re not in a Hummer. Replicating such small sacrifices in one’s personal life seems more doable and more urgently necessary. Gore is also convincing on the solutions side: that existing technologies and achievable standards can solve the problem if we apply them. If anything, voting is more urgently necessary than carpooling.

But Gore avoids dealing with a major point he raises: growth. Along with pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at unprecedented levels, he also points out that our bad behavior is partly driven by our species’ population explosion. We are advised to walk more and bus more, but not advised to use birth control more and reproduce less, or create economies that are less oriented toward unlimited expansion.

There are good ideas worth supporting in the transportation plans in front of us. Some will help the environment. I applaud Nickels’ sensible determination to maintain and fix the streets, bridges, and sidewalks, and I approve of Sims’ desire to attack the chicken-and-egg dilemmas of bus service. These ideas are practical, doable, and they reflect good stewardship of resources and the planet. Some will even help with the global warming bugaboo.

But growth is part of our challenge, too. You cannot grow your way out of the consequences of growth. You cannot build your way out of them. As Edward Abbey famously observed, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” The prosperity of the present is not sustainable in the future and not affordable. Those are other inconvenient truths we face. If transportation solutions merely grease the skids for more growth at all costs, we’ll be paying a high price for our own demise.

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