Meeting Minutes from inSPIRE Social on June 10, 2006  

We had our forth social event of 2006 at Cleve s house. We had a great turnout for a lovely Saturday evening, with 30 people attending. Special thanks to Cleve for being willing to host! And thanks to all other attendees for bringing such a great array of potluck dishes!

First Keynote Speaker, Cleve Stockmeyer Cleve Stockmeyer, a former Board of Director member of the Seattle Monorail Authority, led a discussion on transportation issues facing Seattle and the Greater Puget Sound area. Cleve gave a very interesting talk covering the key characteristics of a truly progressive regional transportation system and a truly progressive local government, and compared these to circumstances here in the Puget Sound region. Cleve s personal background, including having been raised in Washington DC and having lived in New York City, both places with comprehensive transit systems, has helped to provide him with insights into transit possibilities. Chas Redmond, also in attendance, assisted Cleve in this presentation.

Effective local government is crucial to the development of an effective transit system. Transit is needed for the public good. Our government is responsible for setting aside / acquiring the required real estate for a transit system, leading a development effort and the financing effort. In their efforts to develop an effective local transit system, frequently the local government does not keep transit s overriding purpose in mind, that of allowing people and goods to be moved throughout the community in an efficient manner. A city, when viewed from a transit need perspective, is really a gathering of destinations for its members, effectively a large group of choices. A transit system needs to move people around rapidly and cheaply. Today, in the Puget Sound region, we are unable to efficiently use public transit to move between these destination choices. We need to do better.

The politics behind the development of a regional transit system can be detrimental to progress. Community members and organizations, I.E. voters , tend to line up behind one particular transportation method, such as we need more roads for cars , or I support the monorail , etc. There tends to not be an integrated view of our different transit alternatives. This leads to friction and inefficiency.

An example of an integrated transit system is Washington DC. In Washington DC, besides a very good Metro system there are many large arterials that allow drivers to move about. In Seattle we lack this avenue grid. In Seattle, if one wants to travel any distance one pretty much has to get on the freeway. A case in point: Broadway is not very broad!

Seattle is desperately in need of parallel transit choices. Cleve is not advocating us going out and building a lot of new roads but rather just pointing out that a community s road grid system is a key part of our transit situation. The monorail was effectively a throughput opportunity , I.E. a new pipeline through the city which would have been a needed addition to our current transit choices. Also, the monorail would have been a fully grade separate system , a transit method which does not slow down surface traffic and thus is highly reliable.

When building a transit system, a community is effectively making a hundred year decision . A decision of this magnitude clearly will take significant investment, an investment that Seattle seems to have not yet been able to remedy. However, all throughout America other major cities have made this investment. Cleve showed terrific graphics prepared by Chas Redmond to emphasize this by showing a map of the Puget Sound region on the screen, then overlaying a to scale map of the current transit systems existing in other US cities, including Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, New York, Washington DC, Cleveland and others. These maps clearly showed how far Seattle is lagging behind compared to other US cities. These maps also helped to challenge common misconceptions many in Seattle have about regional transit systems, including good transit systems only exist on the east costs (not true), only poor people will ride on the transit system (also not true), a transit system must be 100% perfect or we shouldn t build it (never the case) and you need enough density to support all legs of a transit system right from the start (in reality, a good transit system will lead to good economic growth along the transit lines by allowing people to get to places in an efficient manner).

Why don t we have a good transit system in Seattle? Multiple reasons account for this. Seattle has geographical transit challenges due to our local waterways inhibiting growth westward (Puget Sound is in the way) and eastward (Lake Washington and the Cascades), thus community growth has been mostly forced northwards and southwards, leading to difficult (but not at all impossible) transit challenges.

We have a divided government when it comes to transportation. We have nine government agencies that deal with transportation issues, and these agencies tend to not talk to each other. And more rarely do we see these different agencies developing joint plans. In fact, there is no plan!

As mentioned before, community groups and members tend to be at odds with each other. Progressives at times can be a little extreme and bellow I hate cars! instead of working for a practical transit solution. Transit issues are more than a moral issue and more than an environmental issue. Turf battles are common in transit, creating a situation of transit option A vs transit option B instead of a multifaceted solution. The Monorail was an example of this with all Sound Transit Board members being against the Monorail, which would have quite effectively enhanced Sound Transit s ability to move people throughout Seattle! A full transit system could include Sound Transit, Sounder, the Monorail, better bus service, an improved road grid and other transit options. It s not a situation of one or the other , yet politics drive it to that. The Monorail would have really just been the Westside Line of a full transportation system!

Our laws work against public transit. Per our Washington State constitution, all gas taxes must go towards our highways and cannot be used to fund rapid transit systems. Our building codes require parking spaces, thus providing owners strong encouragement to own their own vehicles which at the same time driving up housing costs. Why not instead require these funds to be directed as a public transit system?

Road projects tend to have much less onerous rules then public transit projects. Mayor Greg Nickels, in his efforts to build a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct has stated he knows we have the funds to begin the tunnel and that the funds required to finish the tunnel will be found at a later date. This is common with highway projects. However, with the Monorail the business case had to be effectively solved well before building began, putting significantly more difficulty in solving this public transit project than is required with normal new roads projects.

Finance issues are always a major hurdle with transit solutions, and frequently politics drive the financial outcome. In Seattle, the City of Seattle gave light rail $50 million but in turn charged the Monorail $75 million. This was a detrimental financial blow to the Monorail in light of the fact that the entire acquisition budget for the Monorail was only $63 million. Community members commonly get very excited about a new tax, including a tax to fund public transit. The Monorail tax method was a truly progressive tax. This car tab tax, besides being directly related to transportation also put more of the tax burden on people who tend to have more funds, I.E., those that have expensive vehicles. Approximately 30% of Seattleites don t own vehicles, thus they would not have paid any tax to support the Monorail. Most people who don t own cars are in this position because they are lower income and cannot afford them, thus this particular tax is much less regressive that a sales tax or income tax. Clearly no one enjoys a tax burden, but the rap on Seattleites being excessively taxed is not true when compared to our neighbors. For example, the Idaho income tax, if applied in Washington, would infer a financial burden of thousands of dollars per year on our wealthier community members. Thus, applying a progressive car tab tax is a reasonable method to fund a better community better because we would finally be moving towards an effective public transit system.

Cleve stressed that his experience as a member of the Seattle Monorail Board has provided him with insights of how things could have been done differently to achieve better results. He stressed that a progressive government really needs to convince the community that government can tackle big problems and solve big problems, in a cost effective manner. The Monorail could have been marketed much more effectively by explaining its benefits more tangibly. For example, the cost of travel time could have been better captured and emphasized. The Monorail ended up in a detrimental media war. How the Monorail process evolved, as well as how transportation issues in Seattle and the Puget Sound are currently being handled has led Cleve to believe that we do not currently have a truly progressive government here, let alone a truly progressive public transit system.

Second Keynote Speaker, Cary Moon of the People s Waterfront Coalition 

Cary Moon was a founder of the People s Waterfront Coalition which is an organization of local planning professionals. This group has expended extensive effort towards solving our Seattle waterfront and Alaskan Way Viaduct problems with alternatives other than those currently being proposed by Mayor Greg Nickels and others in our local government. Mayor Nickels has been a strong proponent for replacing the viaduct with a tunnel, which would also function as a new seawall. This tunnel option would be extremely expensive and would not allow for many citizen friendly development possibilities.

Cary explained how the Seattle we live in today is very different than Seattle was when the viaduct was first built in 1953. In 1953, people did not live in downtown Seattle. Both the Seattle waterfront and downtown were not popular spots as they are today. The viaduct seemed a reasonable transportation solution at the time it was built. But today, things have changed. Today downtown Seattle is a vibrant community of both residents and businesses as well as tourists. The nature of today s Seattle calls for a different transportation solution than existed in 1953.

Cary asked the basic question of why are we spending billions of dollars to perpetuate a system that isn t working? Building highways encourages more cars, sort of a if you build it they will come situation. We currently have a $75 billion state backlog in highway projects. Investing in an expensive tunnel will take funds away from other important projects. Also, tunnel proponents are ignoring important environmental concerns, such as rising sea levels. The Seattle fault, which would run under a new tunnel or a waterfront highway, poor soils, and the challenge of keeping a tunnel next to the sea dry all add to the complexity and expense.

Cary stressed it is a wiser investment to invest in transit rather than highways. A review of planning documents from the city and region shows that Seattle's consistent goal is to shift people into transit, walking and biking modes . The viaduct is mainly used as a method to travel around downtown, not necessarily to get downtown.

The viaduct carries a lot of daily traffic, including freight traffic. In finding alternatives to a viaduct or a tunnel it s important to understand how this current traffic can be handled. On average only 25% of car trips are work related. Thus, many car trips are optional and can be avoided or substituted with public transit.

Cary s proposal contained multiple points. Key to Cary s proposal is to reframe the problem. What we really need is system mobility, not corridor capacity. Today, we don t view possible traffic solutions on a full system basis. Many projects exist today to relieve congestion. Washington s Department of Transportation (DOT) only focuses on highways. They don t consider public transit or local roads, and as expected, they push for a transportation solution under their own control and influence. To solve Seattle s traffic congestion problem, it s better to give residents multiple choices of moving around , not just a new highway. This current viaduct issue provides us with an opportunity to develop other alternatives, as will the I-5 re-paving project which will hit us in about fifteen years.

When capacity is removed, an average of 25% (and up to 60%) of trips taken will go away. Also, higher gas prices are influencing people to avoid unnecessary trips and take public transit rather than to drive. So, the notion that 100% of today s traffic will always be there thus we need highways to handle it is a misnomer. Cary proposed a new four-way surface street where Alaskan Way is today. This new arterial can handle about 20% of today s traffic. Next, we need to improve local transit. Metro has proposed a $50 million budget for new high-speed transit on this corridor. This should be increased to $250 million; this service could accommodate about 25% to 30% of today's viaduct traffic. There is unused capacity in the street grid, and many opportunities have been identified to better use this pavement that already exists. If investments are made to improve connectivity and flow in the grid, it could handle about 25% to 30% of the viaduct trips. Freight traffic needs to be given a priority. Other cities with fewer highways and bigger economies have already solved this issue: many small improvements can be made to enhance freight mobility.

Cary presented many artist s renderings of what the Seattle waterfront could look like, all of which would expand public life on the waterfront. She suggested replacing the current seawall in many places with softer-edged beaches. We face many marine problems in ElliotBay which these beaches could help to solve. Also, these could be used as a living example for other communities. Nice new parks could be developed too. The People s Waterfront Coalition submitted their plans to a national competition where they won second place. And their proposal will be featured along with other projects in a national PBS documentary called Edens Lost and Found.

Cary showed images of multiple examples in other American cities where this sort of project has been successfully undertaken, including San Francisco, Chattanooga and Milwaukee. In Chattanooga, their new riverfront project actually received federal funds even though it downgraded a highway into a surface boulevard. Thus, federal funds may possibly be obtained for a non-highway Seattle waterfront option.

Why should this idea be pursued? Cary presented many reasons. Today, Seattle has the highest level of cars per household in the nation, at 2.4 cars per household. Today 22% of our personal income goes towards transportation in Seattle. This financial burden can be lowered if transportation alternatives to driving are provided to our community. The expected burden on local businesses that will occur during the lengthy construction of a tunnel can be avoided. Expected tunnel cost overruns can be avoided. And improving local transit to make it more convenient than driving will actually get people out of their cars.

Cary admitted that this proposal faces tough political challenges. The contractor in charge of the potential new tunnel has been given a $75 million budget to plan, design, and advertise to our community just how great a tunnel will be. These alternative proposals don t have these publicly funded advertising budgets. However, our citizens deserve accurate information on all possible solutions to our Alaskan Way viaduct problems.

Our many thanks to both Cleve Stockmeyer and Cary Moon for their presentations!

Other announcements

Thom discussed his involvement with a new media alternative, Independent World TV, also know as The Real News. ( The Real News is independent and is NOT corporate driven! It is beholden to the public and is working to legitimize civil debate. The Real News has received strong media support throughout America and beyond, and has obtained foundation funding. Their flagship program will be a primetime news hour television show providing a vast diversity of voices. Thom is very interested in developing Seattle-area support for The Real News which is based out of Toronto.

inSPIRE Book Club! we didn t have time to give a detailed assessment of our latest read, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, an insightful read about American empire-building tactics over the past 50 years. We really enjoyed this book and had a good discussion on it last week at our meeting. Our next book is Blinded by the Right by David Brock, which will be discussed at our next Book Club meeting June 28th.


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