We Get A Second Chance To Fulfill Bogue's Vision

Crammed into offices in the Central Building, Virgil Bogue and his team of planners spent more than a year redrawing the map of metropolitan Seattle.

There would be new parks, new waterfront development, a grand esplanade connecting the retail core with Lake Union - all linked by a rapid transit system.

The city's steep hills, lakes and ship canals create constant obstacles to planners trying to build streets and highways, Bogue explained. Because of the barriers, most people would live miles from where they work.

The solution, he said, was rapid transit.

"The city's growth will be retarded with a tendency to develop congested, undesirable and unhealthful districts unless rapid-transit facilities are provided . . . The more the population increases in suburban sections, the more difficult the problem becomes."

The solution: a state-of-the-art network of heavy and light rail, some on the surface and some underground, including a five-mile transit tunnel under Lake Washington, linking the Eastside with downtown Seattle.

It was a grand vision, derived from the experience of other great cities, crafted by professional planners and submitted to the voters in the first days of March, 1912.

That's 83 years ago. But there is an eerie resemblance to the Regional Transit Authority plan that goes before voters March 14. They follow similar corridors with similar technology - mostly electric trolleys. Each plan engendered passionate support and opposition.

Bogue was an accomplished engineer and planner who designed and supervised construction of railroads and other projects ranging from New York City to Alaska and South America. Seattle, however, was to be his piece de resistance.

Seattle's hour-glass shape cries for transit, Bogue argued. "Businessmen and workers cannot be served by a surface street railway system, over lines stretching out six or seven miles, with stops at every street crossing."

That kind of commute could take as much as an hour each way, he warned.

But when the Bogue plan came to a vote, it was defeated by nearly 2-1. Voters in the same election approved money for new parks, harbor development and ferries. But Bogue's vision apparently was too far out.

The plan had gaps. His cost estimates were suspiciously low. He made no attempt to estimate what it would cost to operate and maintain the system.

Most important, he drew his elegant civic center and esplanade at the wrong end of town: the Denny Regrade area rather than the south end of downtown where the city's establishment had already made substantial investments. Business owners were unlikely to support a costly vision that might devalue their property.

Looking back, however, Bogue was right. Consider where this region would be if voters had approved his plan. The transit technology would have become dated, but the public would own the rights-of-way, a complex network of corridors that would continue to serve as a skeleton for future development. The civic center, Bogue's version of the Seattle Commons, would have been celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Virgil Bogue comes to mind as I weigh my vote next month. We're told the RTA has problems: It stops short of Everett, and fails to connect the Eastside with northern suburbs. It doesn't promise to eliminate traffic jams. And the price tag is enough to make anybody gulp.

But where is the alternative vision? More freeways? Forget it, this country is getting out of the highway business.

Buses? Bogue understood their limitations in 1911. Little has changed.

Land-use planning? Despite new growth-management laws, we're teetering in the other direction.

Telecommuting? It might work for you, but ask the neighbors.

Or we can stick with a status quo - gridlock. The RTA won't solve everything, but it has to be a vast improvement over what we have now.

This is a region in desperate need of a vision, a project that lends substance to what Bogue called the "civic idea." We need to prove to ourselves that we are a community capable of pooling our resources and building something that can help make things work better - even as we grow.

Rapid transit has that potential. It provides an alternative to the automobile, a promise that people can get from here to there without climbing behind the wheel of a car. All we need is the guts and the bucks to build it.

The federal government isn't going to be much help. It's too busy cutting welfare and handing out entitlement checks to dabble in the petty details of regional transportation. Private property interests are back in vogue. Community interests are out. That's reality.

Thanks to Initiative 601, the state's situation isn't much better.

Here's the dilemma: For the foreseeable future, government won't build anything unless it is specifically approved by people who are increasingly cynical about government's ability to build anything right.

So it's up to us. We can study the RTA plan and pick it apart: What's in it for me?

Or we can scratch our heads and figure: This is our best shot at finding a way to get from Redmond to Seattle, or from Lynnwood to Federal Way, without spending a couple of hours staring at somebody's rear bumper. This is our best guess at what kind of transportation system will make this city liveable in the next century.

All this was obvious to an aging city planner 83 years ago. It should be obvious to us today.

Ross Anderson's column appears Friday on editorial pages of The Times.