2012 Election

"So Much for the Technology of the Future."

By Erica C. Barnett September 12, 2012


The issue of transit (specifically, light rail vs. buses) flared up briefly at the televised debate between Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and his Democratic rival Jay Inslee last week in the context of the Vancouver-Portland Columbia River Crossing project. (McKenna opposes it—no surprise, given that his opposition to rail goes back to his days on the Sound Transit board a decade ago—and Inslee supports it, calling the project a "national imperative.")

Unfortunately, the wide-ranging debate shed little light on the candidates' overall transportation visions for the state.

Luckily for transportation geeks, both candidates expounded on those views at greater length (in Inslee's wordy monologue, much greater length) in a less prominent venue last week: At the Beyond Oil conference at Seattle Center, part of the Center's Next 50 celebration, last week.

In video addresses to the conference, the contrast between the two candidates' views on transportation (and clean energy, and green jobs) couldn't have been more stark.

McKenna started off with an immediate pot shot at Inslee. Using two moribund technologies from the 1962 World's Fair—the Bubbleator and the monorail, both of which were supposed to transform how people got around—as examples, McKenna said sarcastically, "So much for the technology of tomorrow. ... We're not always very good at predicting future technologies and how they will drive our future, so to speak." (As part of his jobs plan, Inslee has talked about R&D tax credit for cutting edge technologies—an approach that McKenna has ridiculed as a risky top-down "Solyndra" policy of trying to pick winners and losers.)

So what's McKenna's transportation vision? Judging from his three-minute video, a lot more of the same (road investments, highway expansion), plus some buses. How would he pay for it? New fees and taxes, plus private investment.

"I'm the only candidate in the race who has committed to taking a transportation package out to the voters within my first one or two years as governor in order to make the investments that we need," McKenna said. "No more blue ribbon commissions or studies."

Citing his experience working with the state department of transportation (WSDOT) on plans to expand I-405 (McKenna vice-chaired the committee that came up with the 405 expansion and bus rapid transit plan), McKenna said, "that experience ... taught me that working with DOT, we can get those projects done."

As he did during the debate, McKenna dismissed light rail as a money-wasting option that will "just poach riders from existing modes" like buses.

Contacted yesterday, McKenna's spokesman Randy Pepple confirmed that McKenna was referring to "the tendency of light rail to pick up a significant number of riders from those who previously had ridden a bus, so it is not all new revenue and new riders to the transit system as a whole."

(At the risk of veering off on a tangent, a) Transit ridership has increased on both buses and rail, indicating that rail isn't "poaching" bus riders; and b) there are plenty of other arguments for rail, including the fact that fixed stations promote transit-oriented development, whereas bus stops don't.)

In contrast to McKenna, Inslee was bullish on light rail, calling himself the only "candidate in this race who supports moving forward with light rail. We can't repeat our past mistakes and ... allow other regions of the country to attract businesses away from Washington because of high commute times and costs."

He was also, unsurprisingly, more optimistic than McKenna that new technology (electric vehicles, with charging stations every 60 miles along highways) would succeed at improving commutes and reducing climate change.

Watch McKenna's whole video here, and Inslee's—where he also talks about green jobs, biofuels, ocean acidification, and "ultracapacitators"—here.
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