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Sunday, July 25, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Cascadia Connection

Special To The Times

Thinking boldly is the only way to solve the Mercer Mess, crossing Lake Washington and building a transportation system that looks 50 years ahead. Here's how to solve transit problems from Vancouver to Oregon - in audacious steps.

TRAFFIC conditions in the Central Puget Sound area have become so frustrating, it finally seems possible political will is jelling to meet the problem as it needs to be met.

It must be met by a bold, long-term plan instead of piecemeal fixes and with a much greater regional approach than has been used before.

Thinking boldly, long term and regionally does not come easily especially when your car is jerking up the Mercer Street ramp toward Interstate 5 in such slow agony that you can count the blackberries on the vines along the roadside - wild, strangling vines that seem to symbolize the present transportation system's air of perpetual inadequacy. Or when you are stalled through the dinner hour on the 520 Bridge, or, steaming in a two-mile queue at the U.S.-Canadian border - frustration is the more likely response.

The pain caused by a deficient transportation system is rising.

Road rage is only part of it. No one yet has figured out how to count the cumulative expense of lost productivity, fuel and clean air because of traffic congestion in this area. We are moving on a system that was designed almost 50 years ago and didn't anticipate present burdens, let alone those ahead of us. Think what will face us if we don't make serious reforms now. What will I-5, for example, be like in 20 years, let alone another 50 years? Can you even imagine?

But frustration is not going to be helpful until we all get a lot more familiar with the true choices in transportation.

We have to look beyond our own metropolitan area, and see the way the problem sprawls out along the broad "Cascadia" region that includes, and parallels, the I-5 freeway and the Northwest rail corridor from British Columbia to Oregon.

The countryside between towns is fast being developed. Needed now is thoughtful determination in the light of that reality.

The good news, in the consensus of dozens of citizen leaders and officials from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, Ore., who are working on a Discovery Institute project called "Connecting the Gateways and Trade Corridors," is that we really can solve our transportation problems. The key is thinking beyond political boundaries and beyond traditional transportation funding sources.

Moreover, in improving mobility, we should not accept a decline in our quality of life. On the contrary, we can go beyond what many have considered possible, and add health to the economy instead of weighing it down with an impossible new taxload.

THE FACE OF A FRESH APPROACH

Elements in a long term strategy should include:

-- A 50-year rather than a 20-year time frame for transportation planning, so we free ourselves from a creeping incrementalism that no longer lets us plan ahead of the problem. Build now, but with a longer time horizon.

-- A multi-modal corridor vision from Vancouver, B.C., to southern Oregon that better links cars, trucks, airplanes, ferries, trains, and transit.

-- A long, "west of the mountains" string of improvements in the Cascadia region, running on a north-south axis, connected to comparably improved trade corridors inland through central B.C., Washington and Oregon.

-- Investments in design amenities that will blunt the hard edge of concrete and make major transportation arteries less-obtrusive neighbors in our communities. As much as possible, our freeways should be parkways.

-- Deliberate use of public and private transportation investment as a tool for affordable housing, quality retail development and land conservation. Transportation shapes development.

-- Exploitation of our area's world leadership in telecommunications and information technology to make telecommuting a consistently more common option.

-- New financing mechanisms that encourage various states and other jurisdictions to work together, as well as new planning mechanisms that save project money by including design, building and operating systems in one management team.

-- Developing non-capital solutions for freight system improvements and streamlining the permitting process for interstate projects.

This expanded set of approaches, we suspect, is destined to become the standard wisdom of the 21st century.

First, however, it must be recognized as the innovative wisdom of today. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result. Frustration over gridlock suggests we are nearing this point in transportation.

How might a fresh and broadly regional approach restore travel arteries in our own immediate portion of Cascadia, such as Interstate 5, Interstate 405 and State Route 520?

RE-FORMATION OF INTERSTATE 5

Four decades ago, a block-wide swath was cleared north and south through Seattle and a trench was dug to lay the pavement for Interstate 5. Some citizens and transportation planners at the time urged tunneling or at least a lidding of the trench. They were a minority and did not prevail. The later lids over a relatively short distance (Freeway Park and the Washington State Convention Center) were afterthoughts, though good ones. Downtown was cleft off First Hill and Capitol Hill, building and park opportunities were lost, and noise levels were raised unnecessarily.

The I-5 design had other weaknesses. Awkward cross-overs of exit lanes present an ever-growing challenge northbound at Mercer Street and southbound at Montlake/SR 520. Even the express lanes - I-5's "innovative" feature - are often underutilized when the main lanes are locked in evening rush-hour traffic because the northbound lanes are hard to reach. Through-traffic that should be on the express lanes windups jamming the main roadway.

Traffic growth on I-5 was inevitable, of course, but it has been aggravated because I-5 is almost the only north-south route through Seattle. The major alternative, Highway 99, is little more than a traffic-halting, billboard-blighted city street through much of its length.

Highway 99's one elevated stretch - Alaska Way Viaduct - is a prime seismic safety hazard. (The good news is that the space occupied by Highway 99 represents a resource for a future, much different and expanded traffic corridor.)

Further, I-5 fails to relieve a major in-city mobility problem: linking the Evergreen Point Bridge and south Lake Union, Seattle Center, downtown and the south industrial area. The "Mercer Mess" is a major factor aggravating gridlock in this urban corridor.

We believe the time has come to do I-5 "right," as should have been done in the early '60s. This means that, from near its link to I-90 and Highway 99 at the south end of the business district, to Mercer Street and the entrance to a newly redesigned Route 520 tunnel or bridge to the Eastside, traffic on I-5 would move beneath the surface in a lidded or tunneled corridor that has additional capacity for new high-capacity transit and intercity high-speed rail as well as increased vehicular traffic. It also would connect to the inter-modal transit station near the sport stadiums, and, further north, with a tunnel between I-5 at Mercer Street and a re-formed Highway 99 (Aurora Avenue).

This re-formation of I-5 would cut the Gordian Knot of Seattle congestion - the worst on the West Coast - for the next half century. It would free thousands of acres of surface land for parkways and parks, neighborhood housing and local retail development served by transit.

The payoff would be a quieter and more inviting cityscape, smooth and capacious land transportation and superior inter-modal connections for bus and light-rail transit, ferries and airport service.

CROSS THE LAKE BETTER

A revamped I-5 would make the recent work of the Trans-Lake Study Committee and the state Transportation Department easier as it is applied to a possible new way of crossing Lake Washington on Route 520.

The 520 corridor from Seattle to Redmond is one of Western America's major economic corridors. Prolonging the status quo in the 520 corridor puts at risk the Eastside's future, which depends on "portable" companies that have recruited world-class employees. Indeed, technology sector growth has been explosive on both sides of the lake.

As a result, rush-hour congestion is about equal in each direction and "rush hour" style tie-ups now happen almost anytime of day. We also can see that the 520 corridor is an obtrusive neighbor that negatively impacts communities and sensitive natural areas at both ends of its lake crossing.

State Route 520 has been called the most potentially "transit rich" suburban corridor because it has key activity centers that are a major focus of travel. By contrast, local traffic across I-90 is "going from everywhere to everywhere" and is harder to serve by transit. Further, I-90 is Puget Sound's eastward gateway to the rest of the U.S. and thus is crucial to truck mobility. Rail could be accommodated on I-90 only at the expense of freight movement, on which our great marine ports and other commerce depend.

So how do you hook up a new 520 with a re-formed and deepened I-5, rescue the damaged environment of the Eastlake/Montlake neighborhoods, Portage Bay, the Arboretum, Union Bay and Medina/Yarrow Point on the Eastside AND move more people in both cars and transit?

One solution would be a cross-lake tunnel on the 520 corridor, with more traffic lanes and a rail line, a lid on the Eastside of the route and another through the Montlake/Eastlake Cut on the Seattle side where 520 would meet a deepened I-5 Freeway.

At that intersection, the two arteries would connect with Sound Transit's proposed north-south rail line at the north end of Capitol Hill, a convenient transfer point. (At the other end of 520, on the Eastside, there also is a clear need to expand the capacity of I-405.)

NEW FINANCING AND PLANNING STRUCTURES

Lidding the existing route would cost several billion dollars and a trans-lake tunnel would cost much more, as would a north-south tunnel for I-5.

There are several financial concepts already under wide discussion:

-- Reconstitute Sound Transit as a regional transportation agency. In its new role, it would be responsible not only for regional transit programs but for regional funding of major safety, technology and freight mobility projects for highways.

-- In addition to Sound Transit's 0.3 percent sales and motor-vehicle excise tax surcharges that are set to expire in 2006, some foresee a local-option gas tax of 2.3 and potentially other user-based fees to be included in the package submitted to the voters in the four-county region around Seattle. There also are more controversial options proposed by some:

-- Financing a trans-lake tunnel at least in part with tolls, and changing state law to keep toll charges in place after construction is paid for, in order to fund maintenance and mitigation of corridor impacts.

-- Using congestion pricing - tolls that are higher during peak traffic periods - to help extend the adequate capacity of new facilities into the far future through "demand management."

-- Getting really serious about encouraging telecommuting as a demand-management tool.

Until recently, tolls and demand management were political "third rails" - touch them and you're dead. Tolls will never be an attractive option in the "freeway" oriented West. However, time is money. Even in such freeway-oriented places as Orange County, Calif., it is becoming recognized that tolls may be the lesser evil if they are the only way to finance congestion relief as an alternative to paralyzing gridlock.

CONNECTING CASCADIA'S MAIN STREET

But perhaps the most hopeful financial tool would be creation of a broad regional transportation development bank. The bank would allow allied levels of government (including across the Canadian border) to cooperate better, pool funds and seek the legal benefits of effective tax-increment financing. Plus, allowing the economic improvements along transportation corridors and the added tax revenues they generate to help finance development of the transportation system.

Such a Cascadia Corridor Development Bank be built upon the successful state and local government transportation partnerships and local governing principles. Issues of sovereignty and independence of taxation would also be respected. But that kind of concern should not cause neglect of the development bank concept.

In other respects, the proposals offered here in Puget Sound should be connected to other Cascadia Corridor initiatives, such as the international border traffic plan through the Whatcom County Council of Governments, the Washington and Oregon state transportation initiatives along I-5 and plans for extensive expansion of the Amtrak/Northwest Rail line for intercity service between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.

Washington state's transportation department - through the Trade Corridor and Border Infrastructure Plan - also has identified a related series of corridor projects, from prevention of flooding on I-5 near Centralia to new cross-Columbia River bridge proposals.

The Cascadia project at Discovery Institute is also working with the state transportation department and local communities to connect state and provincial transportation initiatives along highways 395 and 95 in Spokane and Highways 97/Interstate 82 in central, B.C., Washington and Oregon.

A north-south "inland trade corridor" could take some pressure off Puget Sound's I-5 corridor while sharing more economic benefits statewide.

This kind of sharing is essential, not only because the transportation system of the broad region affects us all, but because the transportation solutions must involve all of those affected.

If people on the coast, for example, expect legislators from east of the mountains to help solve Puget Sound's long-term transportation needs, we need to be assisting them with theirs. Regionalism builds the political base for change.

Broadening the discussion on options also is important. It is a strength, not a weakness, that so many groups are interested in transportation. Discovery Institute's Cascadia-wide transportation effort, "Connecting the Gateways and Trade Corridors," builds upon the state multi-modal transportation planning of Washington's Blue Ribbon Commission. It also is in concert with transportation priorities set out by such public leaders as Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, business leader Phil Condit of The Boeing Co. and the express desires of neighborhood groups.

The Cascadia transportation vision cannot be bought on the cheap. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a zero-cost baseline. The Puget Sound Regional Council projects some $55 billion in spending on maintenance and construction of transit, highways and ferries between 1995 and 2020. If regional taxpayers are called on to put up that kind of money, it should buy something more than creeping incrementalism. It should buy a high return on investments that make the region grow in an available way.

Is the region ready to support a plan of such comprehensive boldness? The reader can answer that question only by asking it first of himself. Now, with the above in mind, we only suggest that you ask it in the midst of the next traffic jam.

Bruce Chapman is president of Discovery Institute, a nonprofit public-policy center in Seattle; Bruce Agnew directs the Institute's Cascadia Project; and Glenn Pascall, a private economic consultant, is chief investigator for the institute's "Connecting the Gateways" study.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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