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.