Month: July 1999

Paving the Lake

When the Regional Transit Authority package was up for a public vote in 1996, its most outspoken opponent was Kemper Freeman, Jr. Freeman, who owns Bellevue Square (the Eastside’s premier shopping destination) and operates the Bellevue Place office and hotel complex, is back. He’s now single-handedly lobbying the State Legislature and the Department of Transportation to spend $12.8 billion to build 700 new miles of freeway lanes and another 700 miles of new lanes on regional arterials. For a man who has claimed that he’s against government subsidies for private businesses, the hypocrisy is stunning

Freeman admits that he’s doing it to benefit his personal businesses in Bellevue, which rely heavily on automobile traffic: “As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most important issues to businesses. All of the ones I’m involved in need free mobility…I’ll be better off if people continue to be mobile.” And he’s right; mall culture depends on impulse buying: people getting into their cars and driving to a place outside of their neighborhood that they don’t really need to visit. But building more roads with taxpayer money just so a few malls can survive is the height of selfishness.

The road construction plan itself is outstandingly stupid. Those 1,400 miles of new pavement will expand road capacity by only 4%, yet Freeman claims it will reduce traffic congestion by 25%. This begs the question: what is 75% of a traffic gridlock? (Answer: a slightly smaller traffic gridlock.) Most transportation planners agree that adding more pavement only encourages people to drive more often and to carpool and use transit less–which, of course, quickly fills up the new traffic lanes and contributes to more traffic congestion and air pollution.

Freeman’s proposal will cost three times more than the $4 billion regional transit package that voters approved in 1996; nevertheless, he’s already met with legislative committees and state highway officials, who are now supporting his plan. Sid Morrison, the State Transportation Secretary, gushed: “We generally think it’s pretty positive. The only way we can fix congestion is to make the investment.”

If we only had such willing shills for regional transit, we’d have the thing built by now. Instead, we have the Downtown Seattle Association trying to stop RTA construction, Sound Transit looking for ways to cut the project down to fit the current budget (while costs from delays and plan modifications continue to mushroom), and the Puget Sound Business Journal giving property owners tips on how to sue Sound Transit to get the highest price possible for property that sits in the path of the light-rail system (see: “Public-private partnerships muddle ‘takings’ law,” PSBJ, 6/11-6/17/99, page 38).

On top of that, the King County Council has caved in to businesses in the Duwamish district and told Sound Transit to locate its rail maintenance yard in the “least-disruptive site,” even if it means spending more money than is currently in the budget. Council members also want Sound Transit to compensate displaced Duwamish businesses and pay their moving costs.

The only aspect of the RTA that’s going forward on time is the regional express bus service, which will probably be the least used portion of the project. Many Metro express buses that serve the suburbs already run empty or half-full during rush hour, while in-city buses fill to overflowing. Suburbanites don’t want to get out of their cars for even short trips into Seattle, much less longer commutes between Everett, Bellevue, Seattle, and Tacoma…and who’s willing to make them do it?

The express bus service has other problems. The 60- and 40-foot buses will operate in traffic on congested freeways and arterials, instead of getting people out of the gridlock, as the rail project is designed to do. More importantly, the cost of the buses is climbing. Because the RTA is running behind schedule, Sound Transit has skipped doing a competitive bidding process for the purchase of the express buses, and has opted to buy them directly from the New Flyer company of Canada. At $435,000 each, the 60-foot buses are the second most expensive articulated buses on order in the U.S. Furthermore, New Flyer originally quoted $418,000 per bus, but recently jacked up the price, ostensibly to cover luggage racks, high-back seats, and reading lights. By comparison, the 40-foot buses on order from the Gillig Corporation of California are nearly 40% cheaper. While Sound Transit debates cutting other parts of the RTA budget, they haven’t opened the bus purchasing process to competitive bidding.

In spite of all the money being spent, the Puget Sound region seems to have no coherent transit policy–mostly thanks to local business interests. The monorail initiative has come and gone without a trace. There’s been no discussion of how effective the regional express bus service will be. And one rich guy has been able to get state transportation officials to support a $12.8 billion package for more freeway lanes.

This is how bad public policy is made.

Sources: “Driven to respond: Kemper Freeman has plan to unclog traffic,” Puget Sound Business Journal, 7/9-7/15/99, page 1; “Duwamish disruption,” PSBJ, 6/4-6/10/99, page 11; and “Sound Transit orders spiffy new buses from California, Canadian companies,” P-I, 7/14/99, B4.

Good News

It’s been a week of good news.

First, on the local scene: the National Labor Relations Board found grounds to issue a complaint against T-Max Construction, Silver Streak Construction, and Gary McCann Construction for illegally firing dump truck drivers who wanted to join a union–in this case Teamsters Local 174. The Board found that Silver Streak and T-Max had illegally locked out their workers on March 20, while McCann had threatened to shut down in retaliation against union organizing. All three companies violated labor laws by threatening to replace the locked out drivers with scab labor. The NLRB’s ruling–although it came three months after the fact (hardly a speedy decision, when locked-out workers need to feed their families)–is an affirmation of the right to join a union without retaliation.

Another good piece of local news: U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour ruled that the state’s 62-year-old law regulating live music and dancing in nightclubs is vague and unconstitutional. This puts a crimp in City Attorney Mark Sidran’s and the Seattle Police Department’s efforts to shut down live music venues–especially ones catering to people of color. It also means that clubs no longer have to apply for a permit from the SPD to serve booze and provide live music in the same place. The statute prohibited “any music, dancing or entertainment whatsoever” at clubs serving alcohol without first getting permission from the local or city government. Coughenour stated: “It is hard to conceive of a more blatant prior restraint on speech.” Nevertheless, expect state and local politicians to craft another law soon. But, in the interim, let’s party!

In other news, a 47-member group called the Trans Lake Study Committee–composed of academics, engineers, and business owners in Kirkland and North Seattle–have agreed that building a third bridge across Lake Washington would be a really stupid thing to do. It would cost an estimated $4.3 billion–double the state’s current two-year budget for transportation construction–and, more importantly, it would be futile. “Traffic would move quickly across the lake only to reach backups on I-5 and I-405,” the study reads. No, really? The solution is not more traffic lanes for more cars; it’s to get more people out of their cars. Happily, the Trans Lake Study Committee recognizes this, too: they recommended that the state should focus on adding rail, transit, and carpool lanes instead. When a group of handpicked people naturally interested in building still more freeways can’t bring themselves to endorse another bridge, you know it’s an idiotic idea that deserves to die and be replaced with something sane … like mass transit.

But is anyone listening? Sound Transit officials are scrambling to cut back on the budget for the voter-approved, long-awaited, perhaps-never-to-be-built light rail system. Some of the proposed cuts include dropping the $50 million development fund that was promised to Rainier Valley residents in lieu of a tunnel under MLK Way. Another proposed cut is to pare MLK Way from four lanes down to two. In fact, most of the proposed cuts are for the line running south of downtown, proving that Sound Transit is even more racist than Save Our Valley folks claimed.

The proposed cuts–none of which have been approved yet–would save $281 million on a budget that continues to escalate as real estate values rise and construction schedules are pushed further and further into the future. One group responsible for the continuing delays is the Downtown Seattle Association, which represents business owners in the city’s core. The DSA wants to do its own review of the light rail plan prior to construction, because it has objections to rerouting tunnel buses back onto downtown streets. This would cause traffic congestion, they claim. Well, sure … as if downtown streets are not already jammed with too many cars. The solution is not to further delay light rail construction, but to do what some European and Asian cities have done: ban automobile traffic from the downtown core. International visitors to our “world class city” are often appalled at how difficult it is to get around in the U.S. You either rent a car or you have someone drive you.

Obviously, we need more public transportation. We also need more political representatives who use public transportation. Then maybe a few of them would make it a priority to find that extra $281 million instead of slashing it from the Sound Transit budget. The money is out there. It could come from the federal government (which wants to give rich folks a $1 trillion tax cut because of a big budget surplus) or from surplus revenues collected in stadium taxes, or from a higher RTA tax (the current tax is a pittance compared to the stadium taxes). Commuter rail is not a luxury; it’s something we need.

Now, one more piece of good news: last Thursday, construction workers breached Edwards Dam on the Kennebec River in Maine. The river, released after 162 years, will now be free to provide spawning grounds for nine species of fish, including Atlantic salmon and the endangered shortnose sturgeon. It also is a historic first: Edwards Dam marks the first time a federal agency has ordered the removal of a dam for the sake of migrating fish.

The Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula should have been the first. Congress voted in 1992 to buy the dam and remove it, and the owners–James River Corp. and Daishowa–had agreed to the deal, but the funds were lacking. Our own Senator Slade Gorton, who is the Chairman of the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee, was instrumental in blocking funding for the removal of the Elwha Dam by linking it to a bill that would make it much more difficult to remove dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers–a move that killed the bill. Currently, Slade is balking at the purchase and removal of the Glines Canyon Dam, also on the Olympic Peninsula. He gloats that his stalling tactics have made it impossible for dam removal to proceed on the Snake and Columbia Rivers, and he’s right. It’ll be at least another two years until the subject is revisited in Congress.

Slade is up for reelection this fall; anyone who runs against him should make salmon restoration a major issue. So far, the democrats have fallen down on the job. According to Patty Murray: “This debate is irrelevant, when we ought to be saying many species have been listed as endangered, and what do we need to do to get them unlisted. We’re spending a lot of time debating whether the Snake dams should come down, and not enough time putting our energy into other ways to save salmon.” Such as? Patty has no clue, and her environmental record is atrocious. Deborah Senn is currently running against Slade; her background as the state’s pit-bull Insurance Commissioner is a hopeful one, but her environmental qualifications are nil.

So, here’s an opportunity for environmental activists, and maybe also the Green Party: get a coalition of environmental groups together to meet with Deborah Senn to talk about state environmental issues. The outcome could be very fruitful, and certainly a lot less damaging than having Slade holding the purse strings for another term.

Sources: Press release from Gretchen B. Donart of Seattle Union Now, AFL-CIO, 6/25/99; “Dance, music regulations too vague, judge says,” P-I 6/30/99, A1; “No new cross-lake bridge, advisory committee says” and “$281 million in cuts for light rail studied as projections rise,” P-I, 7/1/99, B1; “Group worries light-rail plan hurts downtown,” P-I 6/30/99, B1; “One dam down; others in line” and “This might be the year for action on the Elwha Dam,” P-I 7/2/99, A1 and A13.

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