In last week's carbon neutrality reality check post, I neglected to sufficiently address Seattle's unique challenges with transit, which is one the most critical components of a carbon-efficient transportation system.
In 2005, the Seattle City Council adopted the Seattle Transit Plan. Written by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) during the Greg Nickels administration, the goal of the plan was to connect all of Seattle's urban hubs and villages with transit that would provide service at least every 15 minutes, until midnight, seven days a week.
The plan estimates that it would cost at least $50 million annually to upgrade our existing transit system to deliver that level of service. So far, the city has allocated a total of $20 million for transit improvements through the Bridging the Gap levy, or just 5 percent of the $365 million, nine-year tax.
For comparison, the $900 million that Seattle has committed to the SR-99 deep-bore tunnel project would fund the Transit Plan for up to 18 years.
What are the prospects that Seattle will find a way to fund transit sufficiently to build a system that can deliver significant reductions in car dependence and its associated greenhouse gas emissions? Judging from experience, pretty grim.
Take, for example, the 2009 agreement on the deep-bore tunnel signed by former Mayor Greg Nickels, former King County Executive Ron Sims, and Governor Chris Gregoire. As detailed over at the Seattle Transit Blog, part of the deal was $190 million in capital funds, plus $15 million in annual operating funds, for transit. But less than a month after the agreement was signed, Gregoire refused to support the tax on car tabs that would have provided this funding, and to this day the transit portion of the deep-bore tunnel project is unfunded.
Got that? Seattle can't even manage to get a modest amount of transit funding secured as part of a multi-billion dollar mega-project that was signed off on by both the mayor and the King County Executive. How can the Seattle City Council possibly justify accepting the tunnel agreement---as they did in a 9-0 vote last fall---when the state has so blatantly blown off the transit that is essential for making the deep-bore tunnel plan work for Seattle? (Not to mention the ridiculous cost overrun provision.)
Clearly the state, under Gregoire's leadership, does not give a flying fuck about transit in Seattle. Remember when Gregoire vetoed legislation that would have authorized a $20 vehicle license fee to fund Metro transit the same week she announced her Climate 2009 executive order? The only way Seattle is going to make real progress on transit is by presenting a unified front along with King County---in other words, the opposite of how the deep-bore tunnel agreement has played out.
And that leads to another source of our transit dysfunction: the fact that Seattle's lifeblood transit provider---Metro---is controlled by King County. As detailed in a recent Crosscut piece by former Washington Secretary of Transportation Douglas B. McDonald, Metro is hamstrung by "a political system that sabotages wise allocations of service." Case in point, the ludicrous 40-40-20 rule that says 80 percent of any new transit must serve suburban King County rather than Seattle, regardless of projected ridership. (Not that we should expect transit expansions any time soon.)
The efficient provision of transit in the Seattle area is further complicated by the fact that multiple transit agencies operate in the central Puget Sound region, including Sound Transit, King County Metro, Community Transit, Everett Transit, Pierce Transit, and Kitsap Transit. In contrast, the Portland metro region has TriMet, a single public transportation agency that provides bus and rail service, and has the authority to tax and issue bonds. TriMet is completely focused on transit. It doesn't have to go begging to the state for funding. And it works.
Back here in Seattle, although we now have a mayor willing to make bold proposals for new light rail, any such proposal will inevitably be mired in muck of Seattle's transit dysfunctionality. Which agency would build and run the system? How would it be funded? Would a brand-new agency be required, and if so, wouldn't that further balkanize transit in the region?
Overall, as is the case with many facets of sustainable urbanism, Seattle is working with a deck that is seriously stacked against it for making progress with transit. Need I mention the sad saga of the monorail?
Unstacking that deck will be no easy task. For example, the idea of forming a new, all-encompassing regional transit authority may seem like crazy talk, but it's exactly the kind of big-picture, revolutionary change that is necessary if Seattle and the region are serious about tackling climate change. If Seattle hopes to blaze the trail on carbon-neutrality, then Seattle's leaders are going to have to step up and lead the regional charge.