Seattle Considers the Commute

Crowded highways and parking lots prompt the largest transportation plan in state history

SOUTH of Seattle, the sprawling concrete lot of the "park-and-ride" in Federal Way is not quite big enough for all the commuters who arrive each morning. So some cars find a home in odd places like a small patch of grass at the lot's edge.

To Barbara Christensen, who each day catches a bus here to reach her job downtown, it is one of many signs that Seattle needs to upgrade its public transportation system.

For many people who drive their cars all the way to work, the telltale sign is congested roads; between 1960 and 1980, average freeway speeds during the commute have dropped from 45 miles per hour to 28 m.p.h. Flanked by Puget Sound on the west and Lake Washington on the east, the area's narrow shape allows only limited road options.

To ease this gridlock, the area's public transit agencies recently unveiled a plan for improving the existing bus system and building a $6.2 billion north-south rail line.

"I know that some day it's going to be needed," Ms. Christensen says. "If it could be made quickly and not cut us to the quick tax-wise, then yeah, I think we should do it."

The proposal, which envisions the largest public-works project of its type in the state's history, must be approved by area voters next November.

In 1968 and 1970, similar ballot measures failed. This time the transit agencies appear to have better hopes of winning approval from the state's tax-wary voters.

By the year 2020, when the plan would be fully implemented, Seattle's population is projected to be 3.8 million, up 50 percent from today. And proponents see public transportation as crucial to attracting new business and sustaining economic growth. $10 billion project

The $10 billion project - which skeptics say will actually cost much more - would be financed with a higher sales tax, gasoline tax, and auto excise tax for residents of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, according to the draft plan.

A family of four would pay an estimated $155 a year. One-third of the cost of the new rail system cost would be paid for by the federal government.

The transit plan calls for:

* More than 380 miles of freeway "diamond" lanes for high-occupancy vehicles.

* More than 38,000 park-and-ride lot spaces.

* More than 2,300 buses, and improvements to give them priority over commuter traffic.

* Almost 90 miles of rapid-rail (separated from auto traffic) transit.

* Forty miles of commuter rail on existing freight tracks.

* Provisions to enable bicycles to be brought along on buses and trains.

The transit agencies solicited comments in 13 public hearings, on the basis of which the plan or financing scheme may be modified before final plans are submitted in the spring.

In the final hearing only a few speakers criticized the whole concept. Del Berg, an area resident, said the trend toward "telecommuting" (working at home with the help of high-tech equipment) may make the massive investment unnecessary.

"It's so much easier to move ideas than to move people," Mr. Berg said. He also called for taking freeways out of "free good" status - roads provided by tax dollars, available to all at no fee per use.

The draft plan does call for consideration of this idea in the form of tolls with "congestion pricing." This price structure would charge more for use of toll roads at peak commuting hours, and less at other times of day.

Other testifiers ranged from a noise-abatement group concerned about the rail line to a transportation expert who said the agencies should have made even bigger plans.

"By planning so narrowly for the system, a lot of places that could be benefited" by a rail system won't be, David MacDonald, a transportation planner, said in an interview after the hearing.

Another expert, David Petrie, argued that the transit planners erred by focusing on outdated methods instead of exploring available but hitherto untapped technologies.

The former Boeing engineer described a wholesale change in which most people would drive electric "microcars" that would be suitable for taking one or two people on short errands of up to 40 miles between rechargings.

The microcars, which would be either privately owned or rented from the transit authority, could ride into downtown areas carried by maglev (magnetic levitation) rails, Mr. Petrie said in an interview. The microcars could detach from the rail at various exit points and then drive to work.

He is preparing to seek federal funding for a trial plan. Voter approval crucial

Although the plan proposed by the transit agencies clearly shies away from anything so bold, Mr. MacDonald notes that someday the existing park-and-ride lots might be filled with electric vehicles being recharged.

The plan's approval may depend on the many voters who would not ride the costly new rail system daily. Several speakers at the hearing said they wished the rail would serve additional locations.

Noting the system's potential to pave the way for continued economic growth, engineer Michael Lanier said, "it will pay greater and greater dividends for our children and grandchildren."

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