Looking down the road at transportation solutions

Regardless of how Tuesday's election comes out, this region and state must have a long-term transportation strategy based on new investment. Past years of neglect of roads and transit are going to grind down economic recovery and everyone's quality of life unless major, sustained efforts are made to catch up. The outcomes of Referendum 51, Initiative 776 and the Seattle monorail measure will affect that reality, but they will not remove it.

At the core of a new plan should be a consolidation of the confusing array of transportation agencies and jurisdictions that now exist, and completion of the accountability recommendations of the recent Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation. Even though the state Department of Transportation has done a commendably honest, perhaps unprecedented, job of detailing the real costs and exact applications of its proposal for new road and transit projects under Referendum 51, legislators and voters alike should be able to see where this all is heading. Had such a vision already been in place, the referendum might have been an easier sell.

As is, the politics of transportation in this region and state have become so Byzantine that one feels about it the way one feels about the recent economic slump: The situation probably has hit bottom and can only get better. Yet, that is only a misbegotten hope if it is unaligned with leadership.

Being a leader in this environment surely isn't easy. What people are calling the "leadership problem" is not about a lack of enough leaders. In fact, we have dozens of independent leaders, elected and un-elected, and they are heading off in all directions. Imagine trying to explain to an outsider that we not only have the standard pro-transportation versus anti-tax-and-spending camps, but many factions within them, and factions within the factions.

Referendum 51 is a healthy compromise on a broad transportation package for the state voters, but precisely because it is a compromise, factions of environmentalists on one side and factions of conservatives on the other are both attacking it. Mind you, there are only factions of each group opposed to this measure, because there are also leading environmentalists — and conservatives — who support the measure. And all these leaders are as sincere as they are unbending.

With I-776, an exotic cocktail Tim Eyman shook up, we see a proposition doing very different things in an attempt to build an electoral majority. We also have people backing it for reasons that have little to do with the stated purposes of the initiative. Like using it as a blunt instrument to bludgeon Sound Transit.

Sound Transit does need an overhaul, but if the monorail measure passes, an opportunity will open up to combine the two efforts. This would put together a more extensive, $4.5 billion monorail network and use Sound Transit's funds to accomplish a real rapid transit network that connects Seattle neighborhoods and the region, rather than squander funds on one short light-rail run to Tukwila. That could be achieved by a second monorail line following roughly along the Interstate 5 corridor, from Northgate to Sea-Tac Airport.

Fellow citizens, we have to start to pull together. The Legislature and governor need to lead on transportation and the voters need to let them do so. (Someone should form a citizens group to demand that fewer measures be sent to the voters. Ordinary people should not be made to feel that they have to get an advanced political science degree just to read all the ballot proposals, let alone decide them.)

The chance for crucial federal matching funding for transportation solutions also requires that we have some state and regional unity before we tell Uncle Sam that we are ready for assistance. Otherwise, transportation funds of all kinds will continue to flow elsewhere. Next year, Congress is likely to enact a new, six-year federal transportation plan, Amtrak passenger rail reform and airport security and border programs. Our bipartisan Northwest congressional delegation — led on this topic by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska — are poised to bring home a fair share of the billions for infrastructure. Must we once again miss an opportunity to move forward because of petty infighting here at home?

When the election results are in, Gov. Gary Locke and the Legislature should start the process of streamlining the transportation decisions that inevitably will follow.

• There has to be consolidation of transit agencies in Central Puget Sound — we have five now and will have six if the monorail measure passes. Otherwise, the public will have no way to understand the system, let alone embrace it politically.

• We should introduce the "design-build-operate" approach to development that is used now in Canada and England to consolidate management and greatly reduce costs.

• Tolls should be adopted for new road projects in order to place more of the burden on direct users.

• We need a hard look at how to attract private funds to connect transportation projects to other purposes, such as housing and community shopping. Lids on suppressed roadways will make the new structures better neighbors, and even add to the tax base from further development. There is no reason that properly designed road projects cannot become amenities rather than eyesores.

Surely, we can find a long-term transportation vision that gains trust, and (dare we be so bold?) creates enthusiasm instead of the fog of low dread that pervades the atmosphere now.

Bruce Chapman, is president of Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Bruce Agnew, is director of the institute's Cascadia Transportation Project.