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Central Puget Sound Growth Management: Goals Versus Reality

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Central Puget Sound Growth Management: Goals Versus Reality

The gulf between plans for regional urban density and the reality of dreaded “sprawl” is widening in Central Puget Sound, writes former Washington State Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald in Crosscut today. The Puget Sound Regional Council is poised tomorrow to approve Vision 2040, its updated growth plan. It predicts another 1.7 million people (the size of metro Portland, Oregon) will move to our four counties between 2000 and 2040. To protect the environment and limit traffic congestion, the elected officials and staff of PSRC propose ways to funnel most new residents to the close-in “metropolitan cities” of Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Tacoma and Bremerton, plus 14 adjacent “core cities” such as Auburn, Redmond, Federal Way, Lakewood, Tukwila and unincorporated Silverdale.
But things aren’t working out as planned. MacDonald comprehensively reviewed 2000-2007 population growth data for the region on a city-by-city basis, and found far more newcomers than hoped for are moving to our region’s edges rather than its core, and that compared to the 1990s, the first- and second-ring target cities are now drawing a smaller percentage of population growth. If the trend continues, so will pressure on our natural lands, habitat, water and air quality. And traffic, already a huge concern, will worsen.
MacDonald reports that while Vision 2040 calls for 32 percent of Puget Sound newcomers to reside in the first-ring “metropolitan cities,” only 13 percent complied from 2000 to 2007. The second-ring “core cities” were supposed to draw 21 percent of the newbies but again, only 13 percent complied. In the 90s, the same 19 cities drew 18 percent of the newcomers, so the 13 percent figure infers we’re backsliding on density, according to MacDonald.
Where exactly are people settling in now, in greater numbers than planners would like? Mostly at the edges of the region, where housing prices are decidedly lower; places like Monroe, Arlington, Marysville, Dupont and Bonney Lake. (Those last two are respectively south and southeast off the regional map above, left). And in towns such as Sammamish, Duvall and Mill Creek, which while not cheap by any means, are at least more affordable than pricey Seattle and Bellevue.
As a metropolitan and regional transportation planning agency the PSRC by federal mandate must try to lay out goals and suggest strategies for managing growth. Vision 2040 is an ambitious plan with a bar set appropriately high. But the PSRC has never had decision-making authority. That’s left to state, county and local lawmakers, and the swirling profusion of councils, boards and agencies overseeing transportation, growth management and economic development.
To abate the worrisome trend he sees, MacDonald prescribes development of beefier policies for affordable housing, better public schools and better bus transit in popular corridors. He also highlights the PSRC’s own suggestion for unfied regional governance on Puget Sound water quality improvements, thus unavoidably also calling the obervant reader’s attention to his own vocal role in advocating regional governance for roads and transit.
But no matter what exhortations and incentives are offered, high costs for single-family homes and the proliferation of family-unfriendly apartments and condominiums in first-ring Puget Sound cities – plus rapid urbanization in the second ring – will continue to drive many newcomers to the region’s outskirts. Right now, that means longer commutes, more greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and more traffic congestion. Not exactly a recipe for environmental quality and sustainability.
Regional governance on transportation remains a hot-button issue in Puget Sound. Some zealous commentators see the idea as a nefarious plot by business and Republican interests to torpedo light rail. This is as foolish as the belief that any one transit mode provides the silver bullet to slay traffic congestion. Regional transportation governance has been recommended by two successive state blue-ribbon panels under two Democratic governors (most recently here) and all but endorsed in a recent state performance audit under a Democratic state auditor. Democratic-sponsored legislation for regional transportation governance passed the Democratic-majority state senate last year before stalling in the state house.
True, regional transportation decision-making doesn’t by itself guarantee enactment of the right solutions to traffic congestion. But an elected regional transportation decision-making board would provide a crucial framework for coordinated, decisive actions to ration our limited peak-hour road capacity, to fully fund crucial road safety projects, to pay for operations and maintenance, to grow transit, and to incent other alternatives to single-occupant vehicles. These are just the kind of on-the-ground approaches needed to tame snarled traffic as newcomers keep arriving, and the outward expansion of the region documented by MacDonald continues.
Whether regional transportation governance flies or not, elected officials will need to muster a lot of political courage to address growth’s effects on mobility. Puget Sound needs to expand time-variable highway tolling, plus form financial partnerships with union pension funds and developers, deploy more express buses, fund new commuter rail service, and create more robust incentives for paratransit and telecommuting. Suburban park-and-ride lots need to be developed into future-facing hubs with robust intermodal connections and re-charging stations for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
As in all other regions our size or larger, the tab for must-have transportation capital projects runs well into the billions, to which must be added ongoing operations and maintenance costs. Just as the solutions are multiple, so are the ways we’ll pay: time, money, and adaptation. We’re seeing that many newcomers to the region would rather adapt their travel habits and costs to less central, less clustered and less expensive homes. Policy-makers, while still encouraging density, need to understand that countervailing tendency, and more fully address its implications for regional mobility.
TECHNORATI TAGS: <a href="http://technorati.com/tag/PUGET SOUND REGIONAL COUNCIL, VISION 2040, DOUG MACDONALD, URBAN DENSITY, SPRAWL, HOUSING COSTS, TRAFFIC CONGESTION, TRANSPORTATION PLANNING, TOLLING, CONGESTION PRICING, REGIONAL GOVERNANCE, BUS TRANSIT, COMMUTER RAIL, TELECOMMUTING, PLUG-IN ELECTRIC HYBRID VEHICLES"rel="tag"PUGET SOUND REGIONAL COUNCIL, VISION 2040, DOUG MACDONALD, URBAN DENSITY, SPRAWL, HOUSING COSTS, TRAFFIC CONGESTION, TRANSPORTATION PLANNING, TOLLING, CONGESTION PRICING, REGIONAL GOVERNANCE, BUS TRANSIT, COMMUTER RAIL, TELECOMMUTING, PLUG-IN ELECTRIC HYBRID VEHICLES