Ray LaHood at Sound Transit O&M Facility
Ray LaHood at Sound Transit O&M Facility

Yesterday, an assortment of federal, state and local elected officials welcomed US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to Seattle. LaHood, who has been something of an unknown quantity when it comes to transportation, is maturing into what I believe many progressive transportation advocates have been dreaming for. This comes as a surprise, due to his background as a Republican Congressman from the relatively small city of Peoria, Illinois.

The first sentences out of his mouth praised Seattle for creating such a livable city and limiting sprawl. Unlike what the name of his official blog, The Fast Lane, suggests, he has been surprisingly vocal in his support of livable, walkable, and bikable communities as well as high speed rail and all modes of transit. Last month, under his leadership, the USDOT, EPA and HUD formed an interagency partnership for sustainable communities which will coordinate and align efforts of all three agencies to improve the livability of our cities.

All of this has attracted the scorn of Newsweek’s George Will after LaHood implied that the federal government should encourage and support less auto dependent lifestyles. Obviously, George thinks that’s a bad thing:

LaHood, however, has been transformed. Indeed, about three bites into lunch, the T word lands with a thump: He says he has joined a “transformational” administration: “I think we can change people’s behavior.” Government “promoted driving” by building the Interstate Highway System—”you talk about changing behavior.” He says, “People are getting out of their cars, they are biking to work.” High-speed intercity rail, such as the proposed bullet train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, is “the wave of the future.” And then, predictably, comes the P word: Look, he says, at Portland, Ore.

Over the past few weeks, LaHood has been touring the country showcasing projects that the ARRA has already funded. Last week he was in Portland to unveil the first US-built streetcar in 60 years. Just a few months ago, he also announced that Portland’s East Loop would receive over 50% federal funding (and on a side note, the recently released Portland Streetcar System plan can be found here).

During LaHood’s speech he thanked Senator Patty Murray for all of the work she’s done as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. He had high praise – saying she was one of the hardest working Senators he has ever worked with. Senator Murray has been a huge advocate of Sound Transit on a national level, helping to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for LINK – including $44 million to accelerate University LINK construction and planning, as well as $23 million to purchase new buses.

Both Senator Murray and Mayor Nickels, who spoke before LaHood, gave good but expected speeches about increasing the sustainability of our transportation system as well as the job creation that the federal funds will foster. Lee Newgent of the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council emphasized the difference between the stimulus funds and the financial bailout, which got a few chuckles from the hundred or so staffers, media and security at the event.

And then there was Governor Gregoire, who wasn’t even originally supposed to be part of the press event. She stuck out like a black sheep, with rhetoric and talking points right out of the 1950’s. Freeway this freeway that, expansion here, tunnel there, braided ramps, I-90, I-405, etc. She made a token reference to transit in the last sentence of her speech, but it was far from the impassioned and sincere speech that LaHood made. Her press release wasn’t much better, either.

A minor but important analogy for the whole event was when Ray LaHood listed off projects that the ARRA funded, the roads and bridges were last, and when Gregoire did the same thing, transit was last.

UPDATE: Looks like I wasn’t the only one to notice the irony of Gregoire’s speech.

34 Replies to “Ray LaHood Gets It, Gregoire Doesn’t”

    1. Yeah, I think that may have a lot to do with how he approaches transportation issues. Pressure on smaller communities happens when the cities don’t get the infrastructure they need.

  1. It’s not necessarily wrong for Gregoire to be all about freeways – Washington, after all, is a pretty large place, and the rest of the state is going to remain dependent on roads whether the Seattle area likes it or not – this event is neither the time nor place to thumb her nose at transit. What’s worse is that this seems to fit her discomforting recent pattern of poorly-disguised attacks on transit.

    Note to Gov: Urban/metro areas need new transit more than they need new roads, so quit screwing with us. And while you’re at it, stop talking about new roads and fix up the ones we already have.

    1. The vast majority of the state’s residents live in urban areas that are continuing to sprawl, largely because of state level transportation policy. It’s very wrong for her to continue pushing that when we know it’s not part of our future.

      1. That is, of course, the catch-22 of the whole thing – our region is most in need of transit, and the local agencies/legislators with the best ideas are repeatedly rebuffed when asking for state money because it’s seen as regionalism. (ARRA to the rescue – we’ll just go to Uncle Sam ourselves.)

        It’s a political black hole, trying to balance two almost-equally sized halves of the electorate – the half that lives in the Puget Sound metro, and everyone else. Seattle isn’t quite large enough to carry the political will of the state (so it usually requires a little help from our friends down near Portland), and an issue like transportation is decidedly regional in nature — there is no win-win situation on either side of the fence, because there’s only so much money. Either the rest of the state gets it roads, or Seattle gets its trains. It’s bad politics, but the gov has avoided taking any meaningful position (a possible result of trying too hard to please everyone), and instead gone with a poor (even unsuitable) compromise.

        I’m not trying to defend the governor’s stance, and I disagree with it – mass transit is certainly the future and deserves far more investment in both the region and elsewhere – but at least there seems to be some reasoning as to why the governor would take such a position. Regardless, there’s too much talk, not enough walk on transit from Olympia. It’s clearly a complicated issue, but it shouldn’t be taboo to support regional issues from the state level.

      2. Significantly more than half live in the Puget Sound metro. About 2/3. But *urban areas* also means Vancouver and Spokane, which account for a lot more. We all need transit, and none of us are getting any help.

      3. Actually Ben, it is almost exactly half (51%) of Washington Residents living in King, Pierce and Shohomish Counties. Throw in Kitsap County, which is a real stretch, and you have 55% of the population. The only way to get close to 2/3 of the state population is to take the entire Seattle Consolidated Statistical Area, which includes Skagit, Island, Thurston, Mason, and Kitsap Counties in addition to the big 3, and then you come up with only about 63% percent of the population, but if you honestly think that the people who live in Island or Mason Counties identify politically with the interests of Seattle, you’re definitely reaching.

        Also, a fair number of the residents of the Puget Sound Metro area live in unincorporated county. I would expect a lot more urban solidarity form Spokane or Bellingham than I would from Rural King County. In fact, opposition from rural parts of the urban counties is often much stronger than opposition from outside the region.

        You are correct that when you include urban areas outside Puget Sound, including Spokane and Vancouver, then you have a working majority. The problem is that most of these smaller urban areas do not see much that they have in common with the 800 pound gorilla. No urban area outside Puget Sound (with the possible exception of Vancouver because of Portland) is of the size in which traffic congestion has become a serious problem. I commuted by car at the height of rush hour every day in Spokane and hardly noticed a slowdown. Nothing like here.

        I believe you are onto something with this idea of building a coalition with urban areas outside of Puget Sound, but such an approach would take a concerted effort with heavy outreach and persuasion. It is not going to happen by assuming that they should agree with us because they are urban and it won’t happen by substantially overestimating the relative size and importance of Seattle or the Puget Sound Region in general. Like it or not, we need those rednecks in Spokane, so we had better start trying to propose some win-win solutions.

    2. “all about freeways” – I should clarify that one, as I definitely did not mean 100% roads, 0% transit. I mean that: a) it isn’t wrong to support roads in places that do need them, and b) it isn’t wrong to support roads and transit at the same time. It is very wrong, however, to actively ignore transit in areas where it exists.

  2. It’s too bad about George Will…because other than climate change and transportation, he really is such a reasonable, lovably nerdy man. If only more conservatives were like him!

    1. Yeah, right…except for that Holocaust thing, and invading the Soviet Union, Hitler was really a pretty reasonable guy…

  3. I’d say it most certainly is wrong for Gregoire to be all about freeways. The majority of this State’s residents and the majority of its tax base come from urban areas. While it wouldn’t be right to cutoff infrastructure investment in the rest of the State, it certainly isn’t right to cutoff investment in multi-modal solutions to mobility problems in our urban cores either.

    Gregoire is effectively taking a semi-rural, all roads and little transit approach to State-wide transportation problems. She really needs to learn that such a single-modal solution doesn’t work well for our urban areas, and doesn’t fit with emerging demographic trends (more urban lifestyles, walkable neighborhoods, less traditional suburbs).

    1. Sadly, you imagine more urban solidarity than reality justifies. Arguably a fair majority of the population of Seattle City Proper are pro-transit, but head out to Pierce, Snohomish, or the Eastside and the population is much more divided. There are a lot of people in suburban puget sound that oppose a multi-modal approach. A lot of suburban and especially rural residents of puget sound really do want all highways and no transit.

      If you took a poll of puget sound (which I define as King, Pierce and Shohomish), you would probably find 55-60% pro-transit and 40-45% anti-transit. While that may sound like a majority within the region, it is a narrow majority. Now take a look at the other half of the state that is not part of a major metro region: they have little interest in transit at all. If you took a poll on transit vs roads of all the counties OUTSIDE of puget sound, you would probably have 80% anti-transit. Given that the population of puget sound and not puget sound are basically equal, our narrow pro transit majority gets swamped by their highly skewed anti-transit supermajority.

      Throw in a general resentment of big cities that is endemic to small places and transit becomes a politically unwise stance for a statewide official to embrace.

      Oh, and there’s one more thing. Politicians do not care one bit what the majority of people want, they care about what the majority of voters want. Older generations are decidedly more pro-car and anti-transit than younger generations. The problem is that unless Obama is on the ballot, young people don’t vote. Suburban and Rural areas also vote at much higher rates than urban areas.

      1. I think you overstate the support for the superhighways to Twisp point of view. I suspect a lot of voters don’t really give a damn as long as they feel their local transportation needs are being met.

        Furthermore the Governor is much more on the pro-road anti-transit side than she really needs to be since there are currently other statewide elected officials who take a much more balanced approach like our two Senators. For that matter the previous two governors haven’t skewed as much to the pro-highway side of things as Gregiore has. Of course it didn’t hurt that Gary Locke had been King County Executive and had run a transit agency prior to becoming governor.

      2. Senators can buy votes and not worry about where the money comes from or balancing a budget. Not so with the Governor.

      3. I believe if the governor was just trying to pander to voters outside of the Seattle and Portland metro areas her rhetoric on transportation would Sound much more like Gov. Locke’s or Gov. Gardener’s.

        Based on everything I’ve heard from her I believe she doesn’t see anything other than “roads” as being part of transportation. I also believe she honestly thinks the state can build its way out of congestion. She’s got a real mid-60’s Robert Moses style view of transportation.

  4. More freeways are definitely not the best use of our money. We need to make the cities more livable, and frequent fast reliable intra city transportation is the way to go.

    Gregoire panders to the Freeway crowd because the non freeway crowd alone in Seattle isn’t enough to re-elect her. She needs the middle of the ‘road’ers. Some freeway, some mass transit, plus the all transit all the time to win.

    1. I’m skeptical that Gregoire’s pandering, in the sense that she “gets” the urban transit-oriented sensibility but just can’t back it openly for political reasons. I see absolutely no evidence of it, and if I can’t see it, what does it matter what’s deep in her heart? Is she waiting for a Democratic super-super majority?

      It’s clear she’s been in Olympia so long that she just doesn’t understand the transit-oriented mindset, and doesn’t know her own limitations enough to get good advisors on the subject and listen to them.

    2. I don’t think she does pander, I think she doesn’t get it at all.

      1. We all need transit?

        Except for a few survivalists we all need law enforcement. Some might argue we don’t need public education but it is mandated by the State constitution. What, 5% of the population in King County uses public transit? Lot’s more believe it’s important; including major employers. But when the State is near bankruptcy State subsidy for transit is a want, not a need. In fact we’ve never had significant State funding for local transit so it’s clearly not something the State needs to do. I’d argue it’s not even something it should do. In fact the funding mechanism should be returned to a more local level. If you think it’s bad now that the eastside gets 40% of the new service wait until the State funding mandates 40% of all additional service goes to eastern Washington!

      2. If 5% of the population has health insurance, does that mean we don’t need it?

        When the state is near bankruptcy, building roads that *create more costs later* is idiocy.

      3. I agree with Ben, the Governor’s views on transportation go far beyond what would be needed to get the votes of the pro-road crowd. She and her staff really just don’t get it. It is apparent in her speeches on transportation, on the Q&A I’ve heard her do, and on news releases from her office.

    3. Sen. Murray has been great on transit, rail, and marine transportation. She hasn’t exactly pandered to the “more roads” crowd either. Sen. Murray has to win elections statewide too.

      There really is no excuse for Gregoire’s views on transportation other than she believes transportation equals cars and roads.

      I suspect her POV may be colored a bit by having lived the past 30 years in Olympia where cars and roads ARE transportation for the most part. They also see the solution to congestion to be more roads and the solution to revitalizing downtown to be building more free parking. This in spite of having one of the best small-city transit systems in the country.

  5. On a slightly off-topic note, is a there two-term limit in Washington state? If not, is there anyone more transit-friendly who can primary Gov. Gregoire in 2012?

    1. No limit to gubernatorial (or legislative, it would appear) term limits in Washington state.

      1. Term limits were ruled unconstitutional by the Washington State Supreme Court back the late 90’s. I doubt Gregoire will run again. We could do a lot worse. I’m a republican and didn’t vote for Rossi.

  6. Between Gregiore and Rossi, transit lost both ways. Shes just something else. And her speech was super awkward compared to the other speakers, and the BIG non-highway compatible LRV in the background.

    I read the Portland Streetcar study. I must say, WOW. Portland is a real classy city. They covered every base and really went balls out on that impressive study. Even something as “small” as a streetcar, the level of detail in each corridor concept, as well as my FAVORITE part of bus vs. streetcar and why the train is better, and green issues are superb. (People really need to understand the bus vs train and we transpo engineers can’t really find a workaround because its engraved in most peoples minds [you guys here don’t count! ;-)] and its, well, true. BRT tries, but with LA and Eugenes experiments, it still doesn’t look too good.) Some of the clowns in Seattle really need to give it a read.

  7. Gregoire is doing Rossi style politics right now, cut education, health care, and keep cutting. How about cutting her own salary, screw the road expansion and start up some road repairs! How about making use of what we already have and make it more efficient such as I-5. We don’t need more lanes for 405 unless we want sprawl to continue. What we need is TOD mixed development around major mass transit hubs that have service at least every 15 minutes. We need better transit that gets people off the road.

    1. She has no choice but to cut education and healthcare, along with everything else in the general fund. We don’t have enough money. I agree that we should stop highway expansion though.

      1. BTW just noticed on the WSDOT web site there was a big announcement of finishing the first phase of the cross-base highway. I can’t believe they are still going forward with that environmental disaster in the making.

        NO new freeways in the state, we don’t freaking need them!

      2. In the budget passed last session they left in funding to complete the first phase even though they eliminated funding to finish the project. It truly is a bridge to nowhere.

      3. Well those supporting the cross-base highway will likely just bide their time and keep asking for funding until they get it. Lord knows not a few developer fortunes rest on getting that highway built.

    2. This is where we need to not spend during a boom. The only way to prevent this was to hold off on spending for the last decade.

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