Why I’m Voting Yes on Prop 1

Oct 25th, 2007 | By | Category: Transit

Proposition 1, the combined Roads-and-Transit package for metropolitan Seattle, provides a real conundrum for me. The sentiment in the Stranger’s ‘no’ endorsement rings pretty true to me:

After road proponents realized they didn’t have voter support for a stand-alone roads package (a major roads-expansion proposal died at the polls in 2002), legislators in Olympia linked roads expansion to light rail. This proposal is an attempt to use urban voters to pass a suburban agenda. Rather than letting compromised politicians tell us what’s possible, the people should tell the leaders what’s needed: more light rail without massive roads expansion. It’s time to flex some urban muscle. Seattle voters shouldn’t have to fund roads on the Eastside in order to get light rail.

But by voting No on 50 miles of new transit, wouldn’t Seattle’s pro-transit voting bloc be cutting its nose to spite its face? No. By unwisely voting Yes on 182 miles of new roads, including four new lanes on I-405 to accommodate an extra 40,000 cars a day, they would be.

The biggest [road] investments in the package include a massive expansion of a suburban freeway (I-405), new connections between sprawling exurbs and an already overtaxed I-5 (SRs 509 and 167), and a highway that will serve sprawl and pave over some of the last remaining oak prairie in Western Washington (the still-on-the-table cross-base highway.)

(emphasis added.)

It’s a tempting and persuasive argument. Global warming will likely have severe concequences for hydropower-dependent Northwest economy; the last thing we need is more cars, more drivers and more pavement. Transit is likely to become ever more popular. Why not wait for a better package, one free of the knife-to-the-neck road building?

Transportation networks–whether freeways or mass transit–are a form of communication, directing people and companies how and where of the region.

Look at a current-day map of Puget Sound. Aside from the truly heinous (and killable) cross-base highway, all of this roadway expansion won’t really change the highway map of the region. Yes, there will be more lanes and far to few HOV lanes among them. But, the new lanes will soon become just as clogged as the existing roadways. The mental map of the region won’t change much for committed automobile commuters. It will still suck to cross the lake, to drive North to South or East to West. A long distance commute will remain totally unpredictable, with some days taking hours and some minutes. Gas prices, secondary to increased demand and a weakening dollar, will continue to increase. Regardless if this road capacity is built or not, the SOV drivers remain the suckers of the region.

(And don’t give me the drive-until-you-qualify, roads are pro-poor people argument. I’m a graduate student, earning about half of the median income for the region. I still manage to live within walking or distance of my bank, grocery store, movie theater, dinner out and employment–in a huge, quiet place with a view no less. It can be done. Move on.)

Look at the map again, overlaying this time the proposed expansion for light rail from this package. Imagine a line extending from South from Tacoma, winding (basically as a subway) through the heart of Seattle, through Capitol Hill and the University finally ending at almost Everett in the North. A second branch splits over I-90, snaking through Bellevue to end in Redmond. This is a revolutionary addition to Puget Sound, an utterly different way of thinking about Seattle and the surroundings–a new way of connecting the urban, suburban and exurban subregions into a cohesive whole.

The wise people moving to and living around Puget Sound will think of our region as an idealized transit map, just as the wise people picture New York City, Chicago, Boston, the Bay Area, or Washington DC not as a mixing bowl of clogged freeways, but rather an interconnected web of reliable mass transit stops. If your serious about sustaining an economic region, people must have a way of getting to and from reliably; only mass transit accomplishes this.

Yes, the tax is both regressive and so paltry it slows the construction schedule to a crawl. I’m not convinced if Prop 1 goes down, a proper transit package will be put forth anytime soon; the experience with the monorail project is too fresh in my mind, in which the good was killed for an unachievable ideal.

Yes, roads are stapled along for the ride. Roads, as their proponents are apt to point out, are endlessly flexible. A new coat of paint and some signs can convert a SOV lane into an HOV lane, or a bus only lane. Tolls and congestion pricing are a mere stroke of the pen away. A carbon tax can be slapped on with no change to the pavement at all. If we are to flex our urban voting muscle, let’s do these things. The time to fight Prop 1 was back when roads and transit were first smashed together. We lost. Let’s fight the next fights that we can win.

For the idealized transit map of Puget Sound–with big brightly-colored lines connecting the region from Tacoma to Everett, the ferry dock to Redmond–I’m voting yes on Prop 1.