The resounding defeat last week of the joint roads-and- transit ballot measure has spawned lots of theories. People just don't like taxes. People wanted more highway expansion. There should have been more transit. The transit in this package went to the wrong places. But the explanations all fall apart in the face of one simple statistic: Of all voters ("yes" and "no") polled on November 6, more than half—52 percent—said they would have voted for transit on its own. Transit is popular, which is why it was linked to (unpopular) roads in the first place; just 45 percent of all voters said they'd support roads on their own.
The defeat of roads and transit sent a clear message to elected officials who spent years trying in vain to come up with a roads package that would pass, only to link it to light-rail expansion: The era of big freeway projects is over. It's time to move on, put a transit package together that can pass on its own, and figure out another way to pay for repairs to the state's crumbling highways and bridges.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who kept himself out of the roads/transit fight, now says he wants to see light rail on the ballot in 2008; Governor Christine Gregoire has said she'd be open to that possibility. King County Executive Ron Sims has already said he'll push for it. The sudden show of support for light rail is (promising) anathema to the conventional wisdom pushed by many environmental groups before the election, which said that this was the last possible chance transit advocates would ever have to get light rail in this region, and that Gregoire and the state legislature would "never" let light rail move forward on its own. While we'll have to wait and see what happens in the next legislative session, it's clear that light rail is not going away. We need to stop bickering and make it happen.
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What will it take to get light rail in Seattle? Denver, Colorado—of all places—offers a model for compromise.
When Sound Transit went on the ballot last week, it was explicitly linked to highway expansion—voting yes on 50 miles of transit meant voting yes on 152 new miles of highway lanes. Denver did it differently, expanding light rail without expanding general-purpose highway lanes. In 2003, Denver-area voters approved a $4.7 billion package of light rail and HOV lanes (for bus rapid transit) that will, when completed, put rail and BRT in every part of the city and its suburbs. An analogous compromise in Seattle could consist of funding for a new light-rail line to Redmond, maintenance dollars to fix our crumbling bridges, and funding for road improvements that will make bus travel faster and more convenient for areas that aren't served by light rail, like West Seattle.
Denver is one of those cities hardly anyone would regard as cutting edge. The women still wear tube tops (or, if they're older, floral sweatshirts); the men still favor large wire-frame glasses last seen in these parts around 1992. Still, the seven counties in and surrounding Denver have done something truly remarkable: They've managed to reach consensus on a package of rail and road improvements that are actually getting people out of their cars and onto trains and buses.
Denver's downtown has been absolutely transformed by the light-rail line that cuts diagonally along a transit-only corridor from one end of the center city to the other. Before light rail, "the saying that the city rolls up the streets at five was actually true," Regional Transportation District of Denver spokesman Scott Reed told me. Now downtown Denver is a bustling, if somewhat corporate, hive of shops, restaurants, and bars at all hours of the day and night.
When I visited about a year ago, I had a chance to ride light rail in and around the city. I traveled to the suburb of Englewood, where developers tore down a big, old shopping mall and built a new downtown from whole cloth. Denver-area planners hold Englewood up as an ideal example of transit-oriented development—the kind of development Sound Transit would like to see around its own light-rail stations. In Denver, unlike in Seattle, planning and building light rail was and continues to be a quick and relatively painless process. It took three years to build a 19-mile segment from downtown Denver to the southeastern suburbs; that segment opened early and under budget.
What did Denver do right? For one thing, they recognized political and demographic realities: With one million more people expected to move to the region in the next 20 years, the old way of doing things—more highways, more congestion, more sprawl—wouldn't work anymore. Back in the '80s, Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation Vice President Tom Clark explains, Denver was surrounded by a "brown cloud" of smog; although the city managed to clean it up, if they hadn't done something about traffic, "we'd be right back where we started... We realized that we weren't going to be able to build enough lanes to build ourselves out of it." So the region's transit agency came up with a plan that expands transit without increasing capacity for single-occupancy cars—discouraging driving while providing a real alternative to sitting in traffic.
Denver's not a paradise, of course. It's a sprawling, ugly mess of a city, with suburbs stretching out from the freeways as far as the eye can see. There are parking garages everywhere, with more proposed as part of the transit expansion plan. The "transit-oriented development" at Englewood had a distinctly suburban feel—identical taupe stucco and brick apartments perched on top of liquor stores, nail salons, and chain restaurants, and right around the corner was a massive, ugly Wal-Mart/Petco retail complex. Still, change takes decades, not years. At least Denver is getting started. So are other cities across the country, including Portland (where a 44-mile system will soon be expanded) and Houston (where voters recently approved 73 miles of light rail).
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Denver has several advantages Seattle doesn't. It's flat, so trains don't have to burrow through any hills (they do go up in the air, though, to avoid railroad right-of-way). It's big and sprawling, and land is relatively cheap, so stations don't cost as much to build. And it's a major rail depot, so many of the lines run along (or sometimes over) existing tracks. All of which suggests that in Seattle we'll have to get creative to pay for a light-rail system that will cost billions of dollars more than Denver's.
Fortunately, there's an alternative funding source waiting in the wings: tolls, which happen to be the most popular funding mechanism around. In exit polling after last week's election, 54 percent of all voters preferred tolls to general tax increases, and a full 70 percent supported implementing tolls on the I-90 and SR-520 bridges across Lake Washington. King County Executive Ron Sims already has a plan to pay for road maintenance and light rail with a "transportation improvement fee"—a variable toll that would apply throughout the region's highway system. Similar systems are already in place or in the works in many cities, including Minneapolis and San Francisco.
With the region expected to have $40 billion in transportation needs over the next 20 years, finding ways to spend our transportation dollars will be easy. The hard part will be convincing state and regional leaders that the fairest way to pay for transit and road maintenance is to start charging drivers to use roads they've always gotten for free.