Seeing the Bigger Picture in Seattle's Transporation Conundrums

Why the rest of Washington state is watching Seattle's every move.

“Seattle process” aside, most of the decisions we make around here are really driven by economic imperatives that are nearly impossible to ignore.

Regardless of politics, regional and national economic pressures still ensure that the big transportation projects that matter most in Seattle will get done—eventually. But not without first encountering two major hurdles along the way: a big reduction in the types of funding mechanisms available to pay for big projects, both at the state and local levels, and big political changes, which have essentially taken Seattle out of the driver’s seat, thanks to shifting demographics and population pressures.

While Seattle still has political clout in the region, it has been eroding for the past several decades. This is partly due to our (and our legislators’) inability to agree on major issues, and to demographic realities. In the 1950s, Seattle had 80 percent of King County’s population; today, it has only 30 percent. Bellevue is on the rise and is becoming a diverse urban city. The Puget Sound Region can be thought of as an archipelago of urban islands which continue to grow and become more diverse. The fact that commutes across Lake Washington are now jammed in both directions is telling.

So, Seattle’s political power continues to erode at a time when we have fewer local transportation funding options, thanks to dwindling revenues from gas taxes and the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). Never has the need been greater to work in tandem with the larger region, but to some observers, Seattle’s leaders—especially Mayor Mike McGinn—have been slow to recognize this. McGinn’s stance on the Viaduct project—especially his very vocal predictions that the state would stick Seattle taxpayers with cost overruns—was seen as alienating by some legislators. Arguably, McGinn has since attempted to work more constructively with the state, but there are long memories in Olympia.

In fact, the biggest player in our local transportation system is not the city; it’s the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The enormous S.R. 520 and the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement projects are the biggest game changers in Seattle in the last 100 years; together, they represent an $8 billion investment.

Transportation projects of this magnitude have forced us to have conversations about what kind of a city we want to be. While these are fundamentally regional projects that affect many other cities, they have become complicated mostly because of internal Seattle “to be or not to be” debates. These debates are important, but cannot go on forever.


Economic impact

The deep-bore tunnel controversy created a citywide discussion about what kind of future we want, but it also was undeniably a statewide, national and even international discussion about what our economic partners need from us.

The corridor serves two main manufacturing and industrial centers for Seattle—in Ballard and on the Duwamish River in West Seattle. The Seattle area ranks 10th in the U.S. for manufacturing jobs, many of which are located along the S.R. 99 corridor. While we may not have much of a reputation as a blue-collar town, with 163,600 manufacturing jobs, we beat out places such as Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco–Oakland, San Jose, St. Louis, Milwaukee, San Diego and Portland.

The corridor supports a major grain terminal that ships grain from the Midwest and east of the Cascades. The vast majority of the agricultural products grown in Washington state are consumed somewhere else; including more than 97 percent of the tree fruit. The biggest choke point for those farmers is usually the last mile to the port; they have a huge stake in how Seattle plans transportation investments.

Boeing plans to make 33,500 airplanes over the next 20 years at a value of $4 trillion. More than 34 percent of those airplanes will be sold in Asia. Boeing depends on the port and rail infrastructure to deliver parts for production. It also depends on roads and bridges between its main production facilities in Renton and Everett. The main corridors are S.R. 99, Interstate 5 and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Boeing drivers and suppliers log more than 6 million miles per year on our roads. The company's recent announcement that it will build the next generation of 737s in Renton guarantees that the companies that make up the supply chain locally will continue to thrive—as long as they can get their materials and expertise to Boeing’s facilities.

The Viaduct replacement project will support all of this economic activity, but it also allows us to make a great leap forward in city building. We can finally create a waterfront appropriate to the natural setting in which we live. We can knit the city back together and connect our people to the water. Not since the 1880s, when the railroads took over the waterfront, have we had the opportunity to connect our downtown to the water. This is a transformational moment for the city, made possible because of the state’s investment in new transportation infrastructure.


The Funding Conundrum

But transportation needs are relentless. Our streets are crumbling; the “Bridging the Gap” levy passed under Mayor Greg Nickels isn’t bridging the maintenance gap, according to former state Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald, who wrote recently on Crosscut that WSDOT is on a 500-year maintenance cycle for arterials; it would take an extra $25 million per year for 20 years just to catch up. The current mayor has promised to ask voters to fund light rail from West Seattle to Ballard; who knows what that would cost? There is support and a need for better bus service, bike lanes and sidewalks in the north and south neighborhoods of the city. How do we do all this? Will voters support higher property taxes, car-tab fees and sales-tax hikes?

Voters appear weary of tax increases. In 1999, they approved the biggest across-the-board drop in transportation funding in recent history with the passage of Tim Eyman’s Initiative 695. The law limited the state assessment of the MVET, which funds our ferry system and county transit systems throughout the state, to $30. The courts threw out the initiative, but the Legislature and Governor Gary Locke later passed a version and signed it into law anyway. Some cite that act as the single biggest reason we are now so reliant on sales tax revenues to fund our mass transit systems and on higher fares to fund our ferries.

In 2007, the voters of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties rejected the Sound Transit/Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) joint ballot measure, which would have provided more than $17 billion in funding for road and transit projects. A year later, a Sound Transit–only package did succeed. But many of the projects on the RTID list are still urgently needed and will likely wind up on the “to do” list of the governor’s current transportation task force, Connecting Washington. In January, Governor Christine Gregoire proposed a 10-year, $3.6 billion package just to maintain infrastructure, to be funded in part by a $1.50 fee on every barrel of oil produced in our state. She also has said she’d like to put a transportation package in front of voters sometime in 2012.

But even though voters have approved increases in transportation funding in the past—most notably the 5-cent gas tax increase in 2003 (recall the “Your nickel, watch it work” signs), and then a 9-cent gas tax package in 2005—these days, maintaining existing funding can be a challenge. Last November, Seattle voters defeated a $60 car tab increase by nearly 60 percent—unheard of in Seattle. Mayor McGinn claimed it didn’t pass because it wasn’t large enough—he said it should have been $80 and weighted more heavily to transit. Others believe it went down because the funding mechanism was too regressive—a Mercedes owner would pay the same as the owner of an old Chevy. Still others thought the small amount dedicated to catching up with road maintenance—only 29 percent—doomed the proposal. Whatever the reason, the measure failed, but the need persists, now with fewer revenue options. For counties and cities, it basically comes down to property taxes, sales taxes and special levies. Seattle drivers will pay an average of $40 extra this year when they renew their license tabs—$20 for Metro and $20 for Seattle.

Aubrey Davis, one of the creators of the Metro bus system, a former Washington State Transportation commissioner and the current chair of the PSRC’s task force on financing transportation, believes that the greatest challenge for transportation now is how it is funded and managed. “We have continuing needs to maintain and upgrade our transportation system that clearly can’t be met with our current funding strategies,” he says. We need to embrace technology, he says, and force a quicker transition to electrifying the transportation grid. Davis believes that the use of electric cars and hybrids needs to be encouraged, and that investments in smart grid technology and charging stations should be a high priority for government. “Traditionally, this has been a bipartisan issue. It remains to be seen if that will continue.”

So what does the future look like? There will be many modes of transportation vying for space on existing roads—cars, buses and bikes—and we must continue to create new corridors with rail, tunnels, boats and, yes, bike lanes. In the meantime, there will be never-ending demands to reinvest in aging infrastructure, much of which was built when Eisenhower was president.

In the future, the method of payment for all of this will likely be familiar to anyone who pays a utility bill: You will pay for what you use. Because of the continued reduction of gas tax revenues, the steady increase of hybrid and electric vehicles (which dodge the gas tax), and the public’s disdain for general tax increases, tolling will be the interim solution before, ultimately, a transportation utility is created. The economic imperatives will eventually win out, like they always do, and our grandchildren will think nothing of it. In fact, they may one day look back at this moment in time and say the same thing that newcomers to Seattle are now saying about the Alaskan Way Viaduct: “What were they thinking?”

Jordan Royer currently works for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which represents marine terminal operators and container vessels that serve the West Coast. After seven years in the San Francisco Bay Area working for Senator Barbara Boxer, Royer became involved in Seattle’s local politics by working on public safety issues in the Paul Schell and Greg Nickels mayoral administrations. He was a candidate for Seattle City Council in 2009 and is a regular contributor to Crosscut.