Here’s an inconvenient truth I’ve been thinking about lately: Sound Transit could build faster, but we don’t really want them to. While we may individually clamor for the end product – trains now! – at every step of the way we also work against speedy delivery. We cherish our own democratic participation, we demand that our appeals for mitigations be heard, and we require that government not be allowed to harm other public interests in pursuit of its mandate.
We could easily imagine alternative scenarios that would build us new urban subways in under a decade. We could:
- Free ourselves from the conservatism required by private bond markets by levying higher taxes or creating centralized financing through infrastructure banks (see: European Investment Bank).
- Reform NEPA and SEPA to provide streamlining or categorical exclusions for transit projects.
- Be more aggressive with eminent domain takings, and drive harder bargains with affected residents and businesses (see: China).
- Repeal the Buy America Act to import cheaper labor and off-the-shelf materials
- Enact public-private partnerships (see: Denver or the Canada Line) or cede control of projects to firms through consolidated design/build contracts (see: Bertha).
- Ruthlessly cut-and-cover our tunnels through the heart of Downtown, providing no guarantees of continued access to nearby streets or buildings (as when Pine Street was closed for two years for the DSTT).
- Stop caring about noise abatement and work around the clock.
- Preclude neighborhoods from participation in station construction details, and build what we want when we want it.
- Require Sound Transit to use public capital for profit, becoming a master developer and creating massive TOD on all of its projects as part of its financial plan (see: Hong Kong).
- Ignore the advocacy community in favor of faster top-down planning, rendering useless the many oversight committees, advisory boards, our cadre of transportation nonprofits, and uppity blogs like ours.
Though some of those options are worth doing, every Seattleite worth their coconut milk latte hesitates at some or most of them, because we’re not those kind of people. Accordingly, building transit here cannot help but be slow, deliberate, and conservative. We are a participatory culture and our multi-layered governments lack unilateral authority, and we accept torturous process and often subpar outcomes because at the end of the day, we generally like it that way. To this end, statements like this from Sound Transit’s Ric Ilgenfritz in Publicola seem less like the bureaucratic incompetence we’re often tempted to project, and more like the reasoned product of hardened experience:
“We’re not going to say we can do things faster than we think we can. I understand people are not comfortable with these timelines, but we’re telling the truth to the public about what we think this stuff takes. We’re not going to bullshit anybody. This is what we think it takes to do the job and do it well.”
At its root, we face a collective action problem in which our overall best interests (faster construction) are necessarily weighed down by competing and mostly intractable commitments we’ve made to each other through the sum of our legislative efforts. 300 years ago, early light rail spine apologist and philosopher David Hume reflected on the difficulties of collective action:
There is no quality in human nature, which causes more fatal errors in our conduct, than that which leads us to prefer whatever is present to the distant and remote, and makes us desire objects more according to their situation than their intrinsic value. Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because it is easy for them to know each others mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of their failing in their part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But it is very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons should agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it; while each seeks a pretext to free themselves of the trouble and expense, and would lay the whole burden on others.
Political society easily remedies both these inconveniences. Magistrates find an immediate interest in the interest of any considerable part of their subjects. They need consult no body but themselves to form any scheme for the promoting of that interest. And as the failure of any one piece in the execution is connected, though not immediately, with the failure of the whole, they prevent that failure, because they find no interest in it, either immediate or remote. Thus bridges are built; harbours opened; ramparts raised; canals formed; fleets equipped; and armies disciplined everywhere, by the care of government, which, though composed of people subject to all human infirmities, becomes, by one of the finest and most subtle inventions imaginable, a composition, which is, in some measure, exempted from all these infirmities.
So then, there is a fundamental tension between the products of democratic participation (legal mandates) and timely project delivery. So what does this mean for our advocacy between now and November, and for our sense of hope and excitement for ST3?
Complex realities should reset our impatient expectations, narrowing the scope of change we can expect and helping us pick winnable fights. But complexity and process shouldn’t lead us to defeatist resignation. Waiting two decades for major investments to arrive surely means a lot of pain for an entire generation of commuters and residents, but in 2038 no one would thank us for dithering in 2016 on account of our 2020’s-era needs. In the context of a 15-20 year wait for rapid transit, our daily conversations about bus priority, bike lanes, streets for people, building more housing etc, are all now more important, not less. Neither diminishes the other, and we have to fight concurrently for both.
So let’s have our (quite valid) public debates about the relative merits and phasing of projects. But unless you think the June package will be so bad you couldn’t possibly support it, I’d suggest the following: be constructive, don’t play constituencies or subareas against each other, and recognize that we can win microarguments once we’ve given Sound Transit a mandate to build. The silver lining of excessive process is that what we’ll be voting on is a lot squishier than it otherwise seems. There will be grants to win, Alternatives Analyses to conduct, financial policies to modify, local funding to organize, new revenue sources to seek, pitchforks to sharpen, and an economy to grow and sustain in the meantime. But none of it matters if we don’t get 50%+1.