Public Interest Transportation Forum

Regional Transit Plan Needs Thoughtful Discussion and Debate

by Dick Nelson and John Niles

(published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 28, 1996, page A-11)

The campaigns for and against the Regional Transit Authority's $4 billion plan will soon begin. Dare we hope that fact will take precedence over fiction when we hear from proponents and opponents? Just good information would help as we go about deciding whether to embark on the biggest public works project in the region's history. But that, unfortunately, is not the way most election campaigns are conducted. There are already signs that the rail and road partisans are again heading for their respective battle trenches along with their media consultants.

Why not take a fresh approach? Why not make this a campaign that maximizes intelligent discussion of key issues and relegates the spin doctors to the background? Why not have a rational debate to inform the large majority who recognize both the benefit of improved public transit service and the utility of the private vehicle? And, since the plan has been built around subregional investments, why not focus on the region as a whole?

There are, after all, serious regional issues that we should ponder as we sort through the inevitable campaign slogans and claims. Some questions are technical and the province of the experts who the public pays to sift, model, and analyze. Most are for those of us who simply value the quality of our urban environment and natural habitat, and want to see it protected and improved, albeit at a reasonable price.

For purposes of making the point, we suggest a few of these issues, and the organizations and agencies who might be recruited to lead the discussions.

First, are we clear about the problem we are attempting to solve with the RTA plan? If it is principally the congestion that delays our daily commute and weekend shopping trips, what relief can we expect?

Perhaps the League of Women Voters, which has organized many forums on regional issues, could lead the discussion on this key question. The Puget Sound Regional Council, the agency responsible for predicting the effects of changes in transportation infrastructure on travel patterns, could provide the data to help us understand how travel times will change after the proposed system goes into operation.

Some believe that a more important concern is to begin reshaping the urban environment in ways that will produce less auto dependency. Rail transit, they argue, is a magnet for more compact and mixed-use development conducive to travel by transit, foot, and bike. How much land use change can we expect the RTA plan to produce and what effect will this have on our propensity to drive?

This discussion might be organized by community councils in the region, assisted by environmental groups and planning professionals who have been deeply involved in growth issues, including rezoning and the siting of urban villages.

Others, especially community leaders on the east side of Lake Washington, see land use patterns that they believe can only be served by increasing the capacity for auto travel. Are they correct, or is there a better transportation alternative in low-density suburbs marked by cul-de-sacs, mini malls, and office parks? How well does the RTA's proposal for more express buses on HOV lanes, combined with Metro's 6-year plan for more bus service in and between communities, meet suburban transportation needs?

These might be questions on which a broad-based regional organization like the Municipal League could lead a discussion.

Moving further out from the urban centers, does the RTA plan reach far enough to help shape the patterns of growth at the rapidly expanding metropolitan fringe where clashes over development and environmental values are at their most intense levels? How can we keep from replicating our high auto dependence at the growth boundary, which leads to gridlock closer to the center, as the region adds another half million residents in the next 10-15 years?

Members of the regional chapter of the American Planning Association and building industry groups such as the Master Builders might help us sort out this important issue.

Then there is a question that should be at the heart of every plan to increase taxes: fairness. Will low-income citizens be better off if we raise an already high sales tax to pay for the RTA plan? Will they be compensated with better transit service that at least offsets the impact on stretched family budgets? For answers we might ask for the assistance of the Urban League, the Puget Sound Council of Senior Citizens, and other organizations that advocate for the needs of low-income citizens.

Efficiency is another issue that can't be avoided in an era of diminishing public resources and stagnant real wages. How efficiently do we use our existing bus service? What policies and programs are needed to fully utilize the capacity of the existing transportation system, including our personal vehicles? How does the RTA plan address efficiency? Possibly the Puget Sound Society of Professional Engineers could lead this discussion.

Also inescapable is the explosive technical change that could fundamentally alter our mobility within the time frame of the RTA plan. Cheaper, cleaner fuels and safer, far more energy efficient cars are on the horizon. And how will new communications technology shape the land use and travel patterns of the region?

Is Bill Gates right when he tells us in his recent book (The Road Ahead): "Technology isn't going to wait until people are ready for it. Within the next ten years we will start to see substantial shifts in how and where we work, the companies we work for, and the places we choose to live."

A dialogue between the new technologists and environmentalists would seem to be in order. Perhaps this may be one for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility to tackle.

Finally there is the question of how far our personal and regional environmental responsibility should go. Should efforts to control excessive dependence on fossil fuels and resultant global warming be reflected in our regional transportation plans?

The Washington Environmental Council might be the logical group to organize a forum around this topic. Representatives of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has helped shape the U.S. response to global climate change, could be invited to comment.

While some may disagree that these are the key issues and the appropriate groups to lead the discussions, our point is that the RTA debate should not be narrowly structured by partisans on the extremes. What we envision is a set of forums leading up to election day that are organized by groups that view transportation issues broadly.

Since the interplay of transportation, growth, and societal change is complex, data will be needed to help bring us to a better understanding. The organizers should seek the assistance of experts and analysts from both governmental agencies and the private sector to ensure that unbiased facts and numbers are presented.

The idea is to let as many interested citizens as possible come forward to wrestle with the significant questions that bear on the RTA plan, and provide them with the best information we can muster.

Then let the chips fall where they may on the first Tuesday in November.

Dick Nelson, a former state legislator, served four years on the House Transportation Committee. He was a co-sponsor of the legislation establishing the RTA and the state's growth management planning process. Nelson is co-president of Integrated Transport Research which specializes in regional transportation planning. Nelson can be reached at 206-781-0915 or via e-mail at:

John Niles is president of Global Telematics, a policy research and consulting firm in Seattle. Specializing in the relationship between telecommunications and transportation, he has participated in policy development projects for metropolitan planning agencies, state governments, the U.S. Departments of Energy and Transportation, and the United Nations. Niles can be reached at 206-781-4475 or via e-mail at:

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Last modified: February 07, 2011