Transit Plan / What Others Want -- Rta Foes Say Our Future Is Freeways -- We Shouldn't Waste Money On Transit, Critics Of Plan Say
Seattle Times East Bureau
When Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr. ponders the two-mile backup of Seattle-bound cars crowding onto the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge every afternoon, he can't understand why a second bridge hasn't been built.
Across the lake, retired professor Maynard Arsove sees the hourslong traffic snarl on Montlake Boulevard and is reminded why he doesn't want another bridge on Highway 520. A bigger freeway will just make bigger traffic jams, he figures.
Those contrasting opinions point to an underlying question posed by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) proposal on the Nov. 5 ballot: Should transit or freeways get top priority for limited transportation dollars?
Freeway boosters like Freeman are fighting hard to defeat the $3.9 billion RTA proposal that would build an electric light-rail line in Seattle, put diesel commuter trains on existing tracks between Tacoma and Everett and link suburban cities with a network of regional express buses.
The freeway vs. transit conflict has its roots nearly three decades back, in the heyday of freeway building, when Arsove and his Montlake neighbors mounted opposition to an expressway that would have cut through neighborhoods from the Central Area to Ravenna. Arsove, at the time a University of Washington architecture professor, dubbed the R.H. Thomson Expressway "Jack the Ripper Freeway."
Now retired from his 40-year career at UW, Arsove has put on his activist hat again to fight plans for highway expansion. Last year, he joined with residents on the other side of Lake Washington and forced the state Department of Transportation to shelve the idea of a second Highway 520 bridge, to be financed by tolls.
This year, when a proposal for another 520 bridge from Evergreen Point to Montlake surfaced once again, the RTA bowed to Arsove and his political allies and dropped plans for a $10 million study proposed by Freeman and other business leaders.
But the movement to build and expand freeways did not end with the latest setback.
The campaign to defeat the RTA proposal is being funded, in large part, by contributors who worry that it would divert tax dollars from their priority: roads.
When Freeman, developer of Bellevue Square, hears people say the era of freeway construction has ended, he responds: "That's absolutely false. It's like people locked in a room communicating with each other until they've brainwashed each other. I've got to give them credit. They've got everybody saying it. It's patently false."
The completion of a second floating bridge - Interstate 90 - in 1990 demonstrated that freeway projects still can be built - if the concerns of adjacent communities are taken into account, say two men who helped to negotiate details of I-90 construction, former Mercer Island mayors and city councilmen Jim Horn (now a state representative) and Fred Jarrett.
I-90 planners overcame opposition by reducing the number of planned lanes, tunneling through Mount Baker and building a park atop the freeway on Mercer Island. Public support came with a high price tag; at $1.4 billion, the 6.9-mile project was, at the time, the most expensive highway ever built in the United States.
Freeman argues that transit agencies shouldn't receive additional public funding because they account for only 3 percent of all trips but receive 30 percent of public-transportation dollars in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
Freeman enthusiastically describes what he considers the most important freeway project on the Eastside, widening Interstate 405: "Here's what's so amazing. All we need on 405 - and it does wonders - is two general-purpose lanes and complete the HOV system."
To Freeman, balanced transportation funding means spending more money on freeways, rather than any additional on transit.
The dreams of today's freeway boosters are far more modest than those of the generation that tried to build a multitude of freeways in the 1960s. Among the plans relegated to the scrap heap were Interstate 605 east of I-405, the Northwest Expressway through Ballard, the Bothell Freeway, the Petrovitsky Freeway in Renton, and the Connecticut Street Viaduct south of downtown Seattle.
The projects now being promoted by the state Transportation Commission and by a wide range of business and political leaders generally involve adding lanes to existing freeways, improving interchanges and completing "missing links" in the freeway system.
But as inflation and lower-mileage vehicles have lessened the buying value of the 23-cents-per-gallon gas tax, the state has almost run out of money for even the highest-priority projects, such as completion of bus and car-pool lanes in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
Statewide, the Transportation Commission has identified $16 billion in highway projects needed to handle congestion and serve priority business needs. But only $1.1 billion is available over the next 20 years - less than the $1.5 billion needed for high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in the Tacoma-to-Everett area alone.
When a group of business leaders met informally at Microsoft headquarters to discuss transportation last March, they came up with a wish list of regional highway projects that included completion of the HOV system, a second Highway 520 bridge and new general-purpose lanes on I-405 and the Valley Freeway. Among the businesses at the table were Boeing, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser and Freeman's Kemper Development.
The business leaders asked the RTA to include study of a second Evergreen Point bridge, this one with HOV lanes. "To have full HOV lanes from Redmond to the bridge deck, and then nothing, won't do much for the total transportation system," says Barry Murphy, Microsoft's manager of local-government relations. "It will get you to gridlock quicker."
Although the RTA board refused to sponsor a bridge study, the largest corporations at the talks are supporting the transit plan anyway. Microsoft and Boeing, whose top executives favor both transit and highways, are contributing heavily to the pro-RTA campaign.
RTA planners rewrote the transit plan after its defeat at the polls last year, scrapping suburban light-rail lines in favor of buses that would speed along a longer "HOV Expressway" on the freeways. The change was intended to win over critics who said light rail lacked the flexibility to serve suburban commuters.
The change wasn't enough to win over Freeman and Issaquah developer Skip Rowley, who again are funding this year's anti-RTA campaign on grounds that more money should be spent on highways and less on transit. RTA opponents this summer founded Mobility 21, a political-action committee that supports legislative candidates committed to building roads.
Talk of higher-capacity highways reminds longtime freeway foe Arsove of the days "when freeways were going to solve everything."
The conventional wisdom today may be closer to his own view: "We don't have enough money to build highways fast enough, the way Redmond and Issaquah are growing. Even if we want to build highways, congestion is going to get worse. There isn't any growing city in the country that has reduced congestion."
The best we can do, Arsove says, is to build a rail system with the capacity to expand to longer trains or more-frequent service - neither of which would require tearing down homes or funneling more cars from freeway offramps onto city arterials.
For many transportation advocates, there is a middle ground. Transit and roads needn't be an either/or choice, says Mike Vaska, an attorney who spent several years working through the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce to craft a more cost-effective transit plan.
"There has been an assumption that it's a zero-sum game where you improve transit at the expense of roads or vice versa," Vaska observes. "That's wrong. That's a formula for disaster in this region. We need to improve every form of transportation that we have."
Vaska favors a higher gas tax to fund roads, along with increased sales and car-license taxes for improved transit. Whether voters and legislators - many of whom are running on anti-tax platforms - share that willingness to pay more for roads and transit is another question.
For every Vaska who is willing to pay for both, there is a Kemper Freeman who thinks it's high time to improve the freeways. And waiting for Freeman at every offramp is a Maynard Arsove.
--------------------------- Proposed freeway expansions ---------------------------
Here are some of the projects suggested either by state transportation officials or business leaders. Not shown here is completion of a high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) expressway envisioned by the Department of Transportation and the Regional Transit Authority.
1. New general-purpose lane in each direction on Interstate 405 (no cost estimate; proposed by business group; DOT examining possible I-405 improvements)
2. New Highway 520 floating bridge parallel to existing Evergreen Point Floating Bridge ($890 million for two HOV lanes; business group also suggests two general-purpose lanes)
3. Build "missing link" connecting Highway 509 to I-5 ($252 million)
4. Upgrade Highway 18 to four lanes (DOT estimate: $310 million, Maple Valley to I-90)
5. New general-purpose lane in each direction on Highway 167 (no cost estimate; proposed by business group)
6. Extending Highway 167 freeway from Puyallup to Fife ($203 million)
7. Second Tacoma Narrows Bridge, two HOV lanes (DOT estimate: $480 million)
Source: Washington Department of Transportation and ad-hoc county business group
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