Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Most Regressive Option

The Deep Bore Tunnel is a failure of our progressive values.
By Alex Broner

Every now and then a city needs to ask itself the questions: “who are we?” and “who do we want to be?” In Seattle we like to think of ourselves as pretty progressive.  Unfortunately our current city council is giving cause to rethink this assessment.

Imagine for a moment that the Seattle city council passed a new “head tax” that required every adult to pay $6000 a year regardless of their level of income. Or perhaps imagine that the city instituted a draft of all able bodied adults to work as involuntary chauffeurs, demanding that everyone put in time behind the wheel in the name of civic spirit. Or imagine that the city council instituted a curfew whereby senior citizens, the young, the elderly, and the disabled were not allowed away from their homes at certain hours. All of these scenarios should sound familiar to you because this is the status quo of transportation policy in Seattle. It’s unfair, it’s inefficient, it’s regressive, and it’s about to get worse.

I am referring of course to the deep bore tunnel project currently being planned to replace the Alaska Way viaduct. The elevated structure that the tunnel is replacing is already an example of regressive transportation policy in its essential function. According to AAA it costs over $5500 a year to own and operate a car in Seattle. Forcing people to buy and operate several thousand dollars worth of steel in order get from place to place is highly regressive. In doing so, it excludes the old, the poor, the young, and the disabled. Occasionally someone from these groups gets some use out of the structure when a bus travels on it. As social policy, the viaduct is quite bad. But hey, the viaduct was conceived of and built 60 years ago. We know better now, right?

Apparently we do not.

The viaduct had the good grace of becoming damaged and needing to be replaced. The deep bore tunnel being designed to replace is too expensive and solid to fill in. It bypasses downtown so it will never be convert-able for mass transit purposes. On top of $6000 a year to own and operate a car , a toll of 7 dollars round trip will add $1680, making the cost of admission to use the viaduct $7680 a year. The old, the young, the poor, and the disabled are simply excluded outright.

What about the hard working blue collar drivers?

For sure there are those of low income who will need to use the tunnel, and pay heavily for the privilege.  It’s almost a cliché for supporters of any particular roadway project to invoke the hard working common man who needs to drive either to their job or as part of their job. There is bitter irony in building a system that forces people to drive and then citing their driving as evidence of peoples need to drive!

While our economy still has many industrial jobs as well as jobs for people who transport products long distances by road, our mythology of the worker has not caught up with the reality of the last 40 years of economic change.  Industrial workers are a much smaller percentage of the work force than they were 40 years ago. We live in a service economy with lots of low paying service jobs. As a rule, when it comes to transportation policy, retail workers and other low earning service employees are not “hard working blue collar workers”. The barista at your cafe, the person helping your try on shoes, and the guy behind the counter aren’t gruff industrial workers but they certainly get paid amounts that would be criminal in other well off countries. Furthermore other countries (and a number of North American cities) implement quality mass transit systems that help even the lowest paid members of society get where they need to go quickly with minimal expense and indignity.

Our mythology also does not include people who either can’t drive or should not drive. People too poor to own a car, the old and the young, the disabled, and yes, the inebriated either can’t or should not be driving. In some cases we are all put at risk when people who should not drive nevertheless are compelled to.

People who cannot drive aren’t spared the inconveniences and dangers of the automotive landscape. To be fair, the I5/surface transit option as it was originally formulated would also involve adding cars onto the city streets. The surface transit option at least provides for street improvements and increased transit. The tunnel in contrast includes no mitigation as it increases traffic on surface streets, slowing down buses and endangering pedestrians and cyclist.

Ghel architects in their 2008 Seattle Urban Quality Evaluation were critical of all of the options on the table, including the deep bore tunnel and the surface transit option. While they didn’t analyze the issue from a class perspective per se, it’s not hard to see that creating a walkable city with efficient mass transit will benefit everyone but especially those who have no other choices open to them.

The tragedy of all this is that it seemed like the city was turning around. The monorail was a bit of a false start, but after over 40 years of regressive transportation policy we had begun to treat non-drivers as people again. Link light rail is a major milestone in the creation of a transportation system that lives up to our progressive ideals. The pedestrian and bicycle master plans are good laws just waiting for enough funding. Even with its flaws, the surface transit option would have improved not just the quantity of mass transit but the quality.

Instead we got the tunnel. 

The viaduct replacement project has attracted so much attention because deciding what to do with this crucial land and this crucial transportation corridor will have long term effects on who we are as a city.  When all is said and done, we either practice progressive values when it really matters or our values don’t really mean much. Thus far the city council has proved to be disappointing in this regard. They have catered to select business interests; as well as a class of drivers for whom $1680 a year let alone $7680 are no real inconvenience.

What is to be done? It’s clear that as it’s currently formulated the surface transit option will not attract renewed attention from the city council. I propose that we take another look at the surface transit option with an eye towards two things: The transit component should include an element of rail. In coordination with other funding packages we should look to complete lines to west Seattle and Ballard.  Light rail provides a quality of service that attracts “choice” riders (who have the option of driving) while still being affordable to everyone else. It should also include tolling as both a demand management strategy and to raise revenue for mass transit. Tolling is actually quite progressive when it’s used to fund more and better mass transit. Alternately we could spend the money on a sales tax reduction which would directly benefit poor and working class people as well as local businesses. Let's use tolling to provide transportation options to those who cannot drive and to reduce the traffic that makes our city streets noisy, uncomfortable and dangerous to all. Most of all, lets pick a viaduct replacement strategy that reflects who we are and who we want to be.


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