Blog Beyond “Roads Versus Transit”

Seattle Times editorial columnist Lynne Varner (below, right) is a resident of suburban Sammamish, a growing community north of Issaquah, and Interstate 90. Today she warns against the gleeful predictions of some commentators that commuting by vehicle, and the whole suburban lifestyle are heading toward the end stages because of spiking gasoline prices.

The New York Times recently published essays from writers expressing the national angst over skyrocketing gas prices. The mood was funereal. One was titled “Goodbye to the Great American Road Trip,” and needs no further explanation. “Ghosts of the Cul-de-sac” announced, a tad gleefully, a mass exodus from the suburbs and exurbs as people escape their cars for city living.
Blog postings on the subject ranged from expressions of schadenfreude to something more venal. Suburbanites are stereotyped as gas guzzlers commuting to McMansions, the values of which are dropping like granite countertops. One poster predicted rising gas prices will scatter suburbanites like rodents.
…Barring a change in price, we’re going to have to change the level of demand. It has already started. Cruising is down…The urge to blame someone – who better than affluent suburbanites and their cars? – is understandable, but a waste. Smart public policy will fail if its relies on emotional attempts to lure people back to the city or offer a bike for every garage. Better solutions are to continue efforts belatedly launched around telecommuting, fuel-efficient vehicle standards and increasing funding for public transit.

Varner’s on point. Here are a few more thoughts.

  • A comprehensive North American carbon tax, offset by reductions in Social Security withholding taxes paid by employers and employees, and resolutely factored into the cost of gas, would probably do more than any other one thing to change the way people get around day-to-day. But politicians would rather futz around with cap-and-trade schemes that big business will game the same way they game their taxes. How can planetary citizens of North America lead their leaders in the right direction?
  • It’s not just more transit use, and better fuel mileage for internal combustion engine vehicles that are needed; it’s also new vehicle technology. Especially the all-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles now being developed by automakers. The challenge of making energy cleaner as demand grows is one we have to face anyway, no matter what kinds of cars people drive. Nuclear power will be a growing part of that conversation, as will renewable sources such as wind, solar, wave, and geothermal. Second generation bio-fuels made from forestry, agricultural and animal waste hold great promise to pencil out as substantially “net-green.” But it’s going take to take time, and great investment in research and development. The federal government has a legitimate, larger role to play here.
  • Transit is important; but It can’t cost taxpayers billions upon billions, and depend upon tax hikes of indefinite duration. For both roads and transit, we’re going to have to look north to our neighbors in British Columbia. They’re pioneering transportation public-private partnerships in North America. One of several BC PPPs to help handle regional growth is the rapid rail Canada Line from the city to the airport and the suburb of Richmond. There are public funds being used, to be sure, but only to a degree. A private consortium was engaged to design, build, (partially) finance and operate the line. They are payed in full only if they meet achingly specific performance standards at various points in time. Are the trains running on time? Are they clean? And so forth. They make their profit in the end if they perform to standard – and yes – that profit comes in part from fares paid by passengers. But the region gets a valuable new transit line sooner rather than later or not at all, at a capped cost to taxpayers, with an operator incented to deliver good service.
  • Puget Sound commuters would benefit grandly if comprehensive regional bus rapid transit – BRT that really lived up to the name – were instituted with performance guarantees keyed to on-time performance. Private capital could help finance the construction of such a system. Alternatively, or perhaps complementarily, if voters here are to approve a broader regional build-out of Sound Transit’s nascent light rail line beyond the Sea-Tac Airport to Husky Stadium stretch (which is now being constructed in phases), an approach like that used for the Canada Line just might do the trick.
  • As a transit rider, I want reliable pick-up times and trip times. I don’t want to be stuck in traffic on at-grade rail or waiting at a stop for a late bus. But if a trip between the same two points takes longer on one mode than another, I don’t care so much, as long as there’s on-board WiFi. What if I am paying taxes for 30 years for some or another new transit line(s), but it won’t begin service for 12, or 15, or 20 years?
    Even assuming I would use it when built, that’s a very big problem.
    If we who pay sales taxes and vehicle fees are to be tapped again, projects have to be delivered in time for us to benefit in our working years. It’s no good if improvements being discussed now only serve our grown children – assuming they even choose to stay here. Real performance guarantees, cost ceilings and accelerated construction timelines are essential. That’s going to require a new way of doing business.
    Game on?