Zooming out from the viaduct debate, one of the fault lines
among the solid majority that supports transit in Seattle is between those that favor investment in all transportation modes and those that think we have to de-prioritize easy and cheap access for cars, often caricatured as a “war on cars”.
The former group is very much swayed by the easy-driving arguments we see in the tunnel and road diet debates. Businesses are worried that customers can’t get to the store. Operators of freight and emergency vehicles wonder how they’ll navigate the congestion. People may support others using transit but don’t see themselves abandoning use of the car. This line of thinking has a long an honorable tradition, including great friends of the blog like former Mayor Greg Nickels. Over the years, I’ve slid further into the “stick” camp based on some important realizations:
- Emphasis on car access makes transit either worse or vastly more expensive than it needs to be. In a low-capital cost project like RapidRide, responsiveness to parking concerns means that the bus simply won’t get priority treatment. For a big-dollar project like Sound Move, it means Sound Transit rebuilds the entire MLK roadway rather than simply taking the ROW needed, which would have been much cheaper.
- Most people make their mode decision, quite reasonably, on what’s easiest and cheapest for them, rather than any externalities they produce by driving. If driving and parking is cheap and uncongested, it will always be more convenient than taking transit and transit will lose, which is bad news for all those externalities.
- At the moment, most Seattle households own cars. We’re in an equilibrium where the car is often the easiest way to get around, so everyone builds parking to accommodate most people, so land use is crappy for transit use, so everyone owns cars. To break out of the cycle, at some point residents must say enough and start allowing stuff that doesn’t assume most people will use cars to get around.
People with big transit dreams often fall victim to this death by a thousand cuts. Make enough concessions to preserve car access, and your project is no longer what it was.
The deep-bore tunnel is a case where we’re told that it’s simply “not practical” to limit our investment in car infrastructure, which is why it has provoked such deep splits in our community. In the viaduct replacement a total of $1.2 billion of non-gas-tax, non-toll money is being spent, not a dime of it on transit. Even the “surface/transit” option has hundreds of millions to improve capacity on I-5 and lots of street improvements.
$1.2 billion is in the ballpark for high-quality light rail to West Seattle or Ballard, or a Second Avenue transit tunnel to improve RapidRide now and rail in the future. All of these would have supported the same corridor that the DBT will. It’s a failure of vision by our leaders circa 2008-2009 that this approach wasn’t even on the table. And it’s sad to say that many Seattle voters and politicians that self-identify as pro-transit environmentalists today share those same failures.