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July QuickThrottle Column

Posting my July column now. I've been so busy with other projects since getting back from the desert I've not written anything else, although I've started to. Have had a lot on my mind and been wanting to write, but no time and when I do have time the muse isn't cooperating. One day... This month's column is more on the absurdity that is Seattle these days.
How do we measure success? I suppose there are a number of factors depending on exactly what it is we are measuring and that we defining as “success”. A surgeon measures the success of a heart surgery if the patient is better off than before. A singer measures success in the number of records sold. Someone trying to save money measures success in how many dollars are in the bank at the end of the month. A successful motorcycle ride is, well, virtually any ride is a success in my book. And we all measure personal successes in various ways.

But did you know the city of Seattle measures the “success” of a road in how few cars it carries. Yeah, that’s right. A successful road in Seattle is one that carries fewer single occupant vehicles than before. And yet the city says “there’s no war on cars”.  Uh huh. How else do you explain the yardstick they are choosing to measure success?  How few cars drive on it? I mean it is a road. This is like measuring the success of a construction company by how few buildings they built.

This line of thinking is taking hold in all along the West Coast cities – but no more so than Seattle. It explains why the license renewal for my Angus is now nearly $250. Because I live within the city limits of Seattle, I pay $105 of that fee directly for transit, and $25 more for “highway improvements, transit, and other needs”. I’d predict that none of that actually goes for highways. It does say that $30 of that fee goes to fund “road construction and maintenance”.  $30 out of nearly $250.  Wow. We know where the priority for roads is don’t we?

But even that $30 should be enough, with the gas tax revenue included, to keep our streets smooth and paved and able to function as intended – to move as many vehicles around freely as possible. That is the function of a road. Good roads don’t need to cost a lot of money either. Truly they don’t if we chose to spend it on roads. Actual roads.  If we did we’d get a bang for our buck.

In Washington state 1% of all dollars spent goes towards “art”. Those are the salmon sculptures we see along the roads sometimes, or the designs and paint in sound barriers or the art in transit stations and bus stops. Personally I’d rather have another mile of pavement or a fewer chuckholes than a sculpture of a salmon hanging off a bridge.

Nationally more than 20% of the federal gas tax underwrites non-highway projects like bike paths and transit. Only about 5% of people actually ride transit on average – higher in big cities like New York and Chicago where the density permits and demands it. But we are spending 20% of the dollars for less than 5% of the users.  And believe it or not, I support transit – it takes some cars off the road giving me more room. But we have to be realistic in our spending.  Portland has over a hundred miles of light rail.  Seattle has 20. Seattle’s is 5 times more expensive than Portland’s because Seattle has to elevate or tunnel its project, whereas Portland is at grade level. Portland gets a bigger bang for their buck.

In addition federal law requires paying “prevailing wage” on all federally funded road projects, thus adding more than 20% to the cost of building a road – assuming we even build a road anymore. That means that in low cost areas we are paying wages that are paid in high-cost areas. If Congress would use the gas tax as intended – for roads, and allow local contractors to pay local wages, we could fully repair our infrastructure and not have to raise the gas tax on the federal level.

Locally we could do the same thing, but sadly that isn’t going to happen. Not as long as the city continues to measure a successful road as one that doesn’t carry cars. We will continue to get a half-hearted attempt to patch a few potholes, but we won’t get any increase in capacity, we will get a decrease. More bike lanes, slower speed limits, more “road diets”.  I think the biggest adjustment for me coming back from a winter in the desert and in Southern California is that the roads there actually carry traffic. Vehicles move. Even the much-hated LA freeway system actually moves traffic – sometimes very slowly, but the volumes it carries are staggering. The problem in Seattle and Portland is that the volume has increased but the capacity hasn’t. And the answer here isn’t put in more capacity, its make less roads, more transit. And those of us who use the roads are paying for roads, and we aren’t getting roads. That’s not a measurement of success in my book -- it’s a measurement of failure.


Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com or http://www.grgardner.com 

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