War on Cars, Part 2: Seattle's zero-sum game [Op-Ed]

Over the past three decades, spurred in great part by the success of Microsoft, the Seattle area has had substantial population and economic growth.

Over the past three decades, spurred in great part by the success of Microsoft, the Seattle area has had substantial population and economic growth. That growth has burdened infrastructure. After considerable political maneuvering in Washington state, major highway projects like a deep bore tunnel under downtown Seattle to replace the earthquake damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct and the replacement of the floating bridge on State Route 520 over Lake Washington were approved to relieve congestion.

Those projects were approved before Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn took office. McGinn, an environmental activist and critic of the personal automobile, likes congestion. Well, he says that he doesn't like it, but his policies all seem to increase it. He thinks that improving highways to relieve traffic congestion only leads to more traffic. He's been lobbying to have the SR520 bridge redesigned so that instead of 6 auto traffic lanes, there will be only 4, with the remaining lanes reserved for public transit.

Don't be fooled by talk of mass transportation. It's not about buses and light rail, it's about making life harder for car drivers. For activists like McGinn, who think that cars are bad, they'd rather not have the bridge rebuilt at all but that would probably not be possible politically. They can, however, delay the project by up to two years if they force a redesign. Two years is a long time in politics and I'm sure that McGinn is hoping that the delay will help them ultimately kill the project. If they don't, they've made it more inconvenient for drivers of personal automobiles and trucks used in commerce.

Of course, like most social engineering, McGinn's favored design is wrapped in utopian dreams for the future, and not so concerned with the needs of businesses and commuters in the Seattle area. Last February McGinn justified the redesign by saying, "how we get around today and how we got around in the past is not how we're going to get around in the future."

Some of his activist allies were a bit more frank. Fran Conley, of the Coalition for a Sustainable SR 520, said that Seattle couldn't handle additional auto traffic that would come from a six-auto lane bridge.

"There are no more places for cars to go in this part of Seattle."

McGinn and his supporters talk of a "balanced approach" to transportation needs, but they clearly want to make it more difficult to drive. As a commenter on a Seattle area blog said:

"Wanting to make it slightly more inconvenient or expensive to drive, in return for making it easier to do the alternatives, hardly suggests someone hates cars. And even then, it's hardly a zero-sum game between cars and everything else."

Actually, making driving more inconvenient while making the alternatives easier very much is a zero-sum game. The activists know that people, for the most part, really like the transportation opportunities presented by the personal automobile. To get them out of their cars, as folks like McGinn and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood are wont to say, you're going to have to make cars less attractive.

The 520 bridge project is not the only way McGinn's administration has disfavored automobiles.

Earlier this year Mayor McGinn announced his pet "Walk. Bike. Ride." program intended to get people out of their cars. It's interesting that the mayor and his allies cite surveys that show support for their agenda yet people still somehow need convincing that their personal car is evil. Though McGinn hopes for direct funding for the project in the future, the 2010 budget was already set so instead he is diverting funds from automotive use. "Within our existing resources, we will prioritize walking, biking and transit," McGinn said.

Mayor McGinn walks the talk, or rather pedals the talk. Here you can see a video of his honor biking to work. In fact, McGinn is such an avid bike rider that he even has a bike rack on his personal SUV.

I guess if you're an environmental activist mayor who says all the right things you're given a dispensation by other environmentalists for you choice of personal transportation. Sort of like Al Gore's and Laurie David's private jets.

During his election campaign, McGinn, a Sierra Club alum, pledged not to block the tunnel to replace the dilapidated Alaskan Way Viaduct. The tunnel project is supported by the Seattle City Council and by the state legislature in Olympia.

Now that he's the mayor, he's come out openly against the $2 billion tunnel, favoring a surface boulevard that would not only decrease traffic capacity, it would slash it by 50,000 cars a day, supposedly to be replaced by buses and light rail transit.

Ask yourself this question: Who benefits from the conversion of a massive, grade-separated expressway into a surface boulevard? Certainly not pedestrians, who will have to traverse traffic rather than walk over or under it. Certainly not cyclists - more surface traffic means more frustration for those on two wheels. The truth is, there are no winners in McGinn's plan, but there is one loser: You, the motorist.