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The Metropolitan Revolution Comes to Puget Sound

December 3, 2013


As legislative negotiators work tirelessly behind the scenes to seek common ground on a statewide transportation package, profoundly important philosohical questions are on the table. The tension in the air can be sensed over what strategic direction our state’s transportation system will take in the decades to come.

Will a modern, sophisticated, win-win grand bargain between the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House be achieved, or will our infrastructure continue to slide into mediocrity?

On a deep level, the questions are substantial: Will we continue down a traditional path of a restricted 18th Amendment (use of gas tax for roads and highways) instead of multi-modal uses? Will metropolitan strategies–from Bruce Katz author of The Metropolitan Revolution with smart cities, urban environmentalism, responsible growth, transit to city-oriented regionalism itself–find support from the business community and Republicans? Will the Senate Republican leadership provide the majority of votes to lead their chamber through the sweeping policy questions or simply expect a majority of Democrats to vote for taxes while Republicans vote ‘no’ yet quietly bargain for transportation spending in their own legislative districts? Will Seattle and King County voters, who for years have been net contributors of taxes to state government, reach a tipping point of frustration at cuts to local transit and deteriorating roads and support a “Plan B” or ‘King County-only’ approach? Will King, Snohomish and Pierce county residents take the initiative, for the first time in years, to think strategically about the post-modern infrastructure needs (ports, ferries, highways, transit, bike paths, stormwater, public waterfronts, etc.) as a Puget Sound region?

Recently I stopped by a major bus stop in my district to speak with Metro riders about the situation. After reviewing the policy background provided by Metro, and learning more about the current Senate proposal on the table, one rider said to me: “I’ve been thinking about this, let me get this straight, here’s the deal as I understand it: We raise our gas tax by 11.5 cents which, in turn, gets us the honor of voting for a new Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET), and we cut spending on public schools–and environmental cleanup–all in exchange for ‘buying back’ our current level of bus services. Seems like a ridiculously bad deal to me. Let’s just raise fares and our own MVET and pay for our own services and at least keep the money here.”

The state’s thought leaders in the business community are fighting hard to find a compromise. They argue, rightly, that public infrastructure should maintain a special place in political discourse given how vital it is all a healthy and robust quality of life. And yet those same organizations led the charge to fully fund the business-backed candidate in a recent open state senate seat who is categorically opposed to new transportation taxes. It is difficult to reconcile those competing values.

Our old model of transportation funding and spending is ending. More than that, our radical addiction to decentralization of authority and allocation of resources based on yesterday more than tomorrow is unsustainable. The gas tax itself is, of course, imploding virtually before our eyes as vehicles become more fuel efficient, and competing over a declining resource is hard enough under the best of circumstances. Add to the mix the need for a bold approach at living the Metropolitan Revolution and it simply does not seem realistic to expect Seattle and King County voters–and others throughout Puget Sound–to enthusiastically embrace a stereotypically static model.

What would make sense?

Courageously stepping together into the 21st Century of transportation innovation.

Let’s take the risk of truly experimenting with new approaches such as opening the 18th Amendment to meet the transportation needs of communities; taxation of vehicle miles travelled (privacy remains a big issue); wide spread use of regional tolling and variable and usage-based systems; healthy funding of transit in well planned regionalism; exploration of an authentic carbon tax; meaningful reforms that go to the heart of the need for efficiencies and truly save money; more focus on maintenance and operations and repairs of our existing infrastructure rather than new ‘greenfield’ construction; and acknowledging what the data proves–that the Puget Sound is the heart and soul of our globally competitive infrastructure.

Let’s recognize that when you eviscerate the ability of start up companies to attract employees, students to get to universities, Boeing to transport aerospace parts, Microsoft to shuttle employees from Seattle to Redmond and more, you lose part of the soul of what makes Metropolitan thinking an authentic strategy. You lose the benefits of “Rise of the Creative Class,” and you lose affordability and social justice for those who are left behind.

None of this is to disrespect or disengage from our rural communities and their interests. None of this is to imply that all the resources should be redirected to the cities of Puget Sound. None of this is to disrespect our historical ‘social contract’ between Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural.

All of this is merely to elevate the dialogue toward regional thinking economically, socially, politically, environmentally and culturally and to recognize together that our old approach is ending not because we want it to but because the status quo is imploding. In a handful of years more than 75% of the world’s population will live in cities. We’re not ready. We are so much more than what we’ve become.

Your partner in service,


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One Comment leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    December 4, 2013 8:57 am

    Yes as the SightLine institute argues so well, we should go our own way and raise revenue in King Co for a forward-thinking transportation system. Screw this fawning and scraping for this ‘deal’ that mostly raises taxes for more new highways.

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