Transportation: What went wrong when

It’s expected that transportation will be the biggest local issue in the 2008 elections. Most people aren’t happy. But instead of trying to find scapegoats, let’s review some history to see why we’re paying higher transportation taxes for longer commutes.

By John Carlson

It’s expected that transportation will be the biggest local issue in the 2008 elections. Most people aren’t happy. But instead of trying to find scapegoats, let’s review some history to see why we’re paying higher transportation taxes for longer commutes.

From the early ‘50s until the early ‘70s, this state went on a highway building binge. The viaduct was built in the early ‘50s. I-5 was built in the mid-’60s and was completed by the end of the decade. The 520 floating bridge was constructed, opening in late 1963. I-405 was built out, including the interchange linking it with Highway 167, and with I-5 at Tukwila. The Hood Canal Bridge was constructed, and so was the long awaited North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) in 1972.

And the state wanted more. They planned another highway running north and south east of Lake Sammamish that would parallel 405. A third floating bridge was on the drawing boards, linking Kirkland to Seattle’s Sand Point area. A series of cross-Sound bridges, including one from Seattle to Bainbridge Island and another from Seattle to Vashon Island were being pushed. Also being proposed was the “Bay Freeway” linking I-5 to Highway 99 (Aurora Avenue), and the RH Thomson Expressway, which would take cars from 520 through the Arboretum to Seattle’s Central District.

It was a bridge too far, literally, for the voters and the people they elected, who said “no” to all these ideas. Instead of new bridges and highways, we would simply add capacity to the existing roads already in place. And we would promote alternatives to driving, an appealing option to people dismayed by the rising price of gas during the Arab oil embargo of the early ‘70s. That’s when METRO Transit was created, and when HOV lanes (then called “carpool lanes”) started to appear. By the ‘80s so did ramp meters and van pools.

Transit spending continued to rise, but a huge expansion of I-90 was held up by environmentalists throughout the ‘70s, and eventually scaled down to half its intended size, with a lid added over Mercer Island. We never did add capacity to most other highways. And after voting against a light rail system in the late ‘60s, voters green lighted a smaller light rail system in 1996, along with more express bus service. Bike transportation was encouraged through an expansion of bike lanes.

It is now 2008. Let’s take stock of where we are.

The county’s population is now 1.8 million, a 57 percent increase, almost all of it coming from outside Seattle.

The proportion of all transportation dollars spent on transit has steadily risen since 1970 and now accounts for more than 50 percent of the total.

The percentage of trips taken on transit, however, is smaller than it was back in 1970. Yes, the number of actual transit trips is higher, but the number of trips by car has risen even more. Less than 5 percent of the daily trips in this county are taken by transit, which falls to less than 3 percent when you take in the four county Puget Sound region (King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap). So we are spending more than half our transportation dollars on less than 5 percent of our trips. And we are enduring some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

Against this backdrop, there are two simple choices to make. Should we spend a greater proportion of transportation money adding more lanes to existing highways, or spend a greater share of transportation dollars on transit? Dino Rossi prefers more lanes, the light rail lobby wants billions more on transit, and Chris Gregoire can’t seem to make a decision.

The choices aren’t easy, but they’re simple. What would you do?

John Carlson hosts a daily radio program with KOMO 4’s Ken Schram each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on AM 570 KVI. He also broadcasts daily radio commentary on KOMO 1000 news. E-mail him at johncarlson@komoradio.com.

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