This weekend we had nightmare traffic. So bad that it "could be the worst traffic weekend in Seattle history," thanks to major road closures and several big events. The 520 bridge is shut across Lake Washington, half of the viaduct is closed on the waterfront, and tons of events are blocking off streets. When I was downtown yesterday, First and Second Avenues were at a standstill—pedestrians moved faster than cars.
Seattle's traffic is fourth worst in the US, "with local drivers spending an average of 83 hours per year stuck in traffic delays." And widespread gridlock incidents are becoming common: More and more, the city is paralyzed when there are major accidents (twice in the last month) and particularly busy rush hours.
But these inevitable traffic jams don't have to cripple the city. They don't have to freeze everyone's mobility.
If the Seattle City Council and Mayor Ed Murray would make it a priority to build a citywide light-rail network WITHIN 25 YEARS—which the council has actively thwarted and the mayor has said we can only do if we wait for the transit-averse suburbs to join us—we could soon have alternatives to being stuck in traffic.
To be clear: We'll never eradicate traffic jams. But we could get around town despite them.
Seattle and its wealth could afford to build a complete subway network that connects all the major neighborhoods within just a few minutes of travel. Really. The group Seattle Subway continues to advocate for this very cause. Voters would back it. Seattle voters back every single light-rail measure by a mile.
But politicians continually resist efforts to accelerate light-rail construction. The council has deprioritized the city's transit master plan, twice freezing its funding, as if proposed transit lines were a novelty map. We're currently stuck with the next regional light-rail vote likely being held in 2016—eight years after the most recent vote. Continuing to build a piecemeal subway system, by approving small extensions once a decade, which then take another 12 years to build, would take a century to reach most of the city.
The council and mayor can start identify funding sources right now, fight in Olympia to access revenue we don't already have, and then send a plan to voters to approve preliminary planning and financing. Within a few years, Seattle could pay regional partner Sound Transit to start constructing the lines.
It would be difficult—it would take the same sort of resolve and elbow grease that city hall has exerted to build freeways (ahem).
But every day the council and mayor focus on something else is another day Seattle's population grows. Our traffic compounds, the city becomes less practical to travel across, inner-city traffic drives people into sprawling communities made of tract housing and highways, and living in the suburbs gets more sensible. Dilly-dallying will only cause Seattle to lose in the economic fight to our bland competitors.
Critics say Seattle must do everything regionally or not at all—including building transit—but that's a ruse. The same politicians who make this claim have no compunction about city-limited investments to pay for school levies or fund preschool. They have no problem raising the minimum wage within the city limits. They don't hesitate to advance a city parks district. Yet, irreconcilably, they claim the same sort of such city-limited investments would be blasphemous for light rail.
They've been deploying the old "regionalism is the only way" excuse to justify inaction, because they know the suburbs don't hold the same support for transit. Just look at the recent election on Metro bus funding: It passed overwhelmingly in Seattle and failed in the suburbs. Past support for light rail in the suburbs has been limited and spotty. Saying that we must wait for the suburbs to support a major multi-billion-dollar infrastructure investment for transit—one that serves mainly Seattle—is another way of saying, "We don't want to do it. Shirk it for the next politician elected to my seat to deal with."
Light rail isn't aesthetic. It is critical to the city's development. A grade-separated transit system is something that EVERY MAJOR CITY MUST BUILD. We've put up within inaction for too long. Pretending that Seattle is a special snowflake with special reasons not to do something essential is irresponsible leadership. They're lazy excuses. Elected leaders who spout this nonsense are timid and lack vision, refusing to take action on the most necessary issue in Seattle because it's difficult. But that's why they make six-figure salaries. If elected leaders can't make the city's top priority their top priority, they should get out of office.