Washingtonians unhappy with our state’s inability or unwillingness to pour new concrete should move to Florida, where the state with our nation’s second most regressive tax structure (we’re number one!) seems intent on spending what money it has paving over the Everglades and its surrounding countryside.
For all but one of the past seven years my daughter and I have taken advantage of the Seattle School District’s mid-Winter break to visit her grandparents in Palm Beach Gardens, and each year I am astonished by the amount of new construction. Fueled by the region’s burgeoning population and the MacArthur Foundation’s divestment of its huge land holding’s there, whole cities seem to sprout into existence overnight, where horse farms, forest and citrus groves once flourished. And feeding this development, like the vascular system of some fast growing tumor, is an ever expanding and widening network of roads and highways.
Eight-lane boulevards now flow where two-lane roads once cut a lonely trail only a few years before. In Wellington at what a decade ago was a quiet country intersection, a huge overpass is being constructed to ease thru-traffic past the now chronic backups. And the West Palm Beach International Airport, preparing for yet another expansion, continues to sprout bypasses and overpasses and underpasses in all directions to handle the steadily increasing traffic.
Inside the retirement community where my mother lives the changes are invisible, but on each annual visit, driving out the front gate for the first time is like stepping off an elevator onto a random floor — I never know what I might find on the other side. Possessing neither a sense of direction nor a memory for street names, I would be totally lost attempting to navigate the streets on my own. Landmarks, visual cues, even the footprint of the roadways themselves are as fleeting as our few days of sunny respite from Seattle’s usual Winter dreariness.
This is a region of endless sprawl, aided and abetted by a government that seems to be built on the Democratic principle of “one car, one vote.” New roads spawn new developments, more development generates more traffic, and the government responds by constructing new and wider roads. In my handful of car trips since arriving late Saturday night I must have travelled on at least a half-dozen roads with capacity matching or exceeding the Alaska Way Viaduct — many in the process of being expanded.
And yet, the traffic continues to grow worse.
Of course, the Puget Sound region has traffic problems of its own, but to those who would demand a Department of Transportation as accommodating as that in South Florida, I suggest you visit and closely consider the consequences. If the Southcenter Mall stretched for mile upon mile, dotted with palm trees and the occasional golf course or gated community, that would approximate the main thoroughfares that run through a region recently rich with wildlife and natural splendor. With a few notable exceptions, local developers have literally made a mockery of rational urban planning, building sprawling, new retail complexes with names like “Downtown” and “Midtown” — appellations meant to evoke a mental image of the Northeast cities many of the aging transplants left behind, while totally rejecting the principles of density that enable these cities to function as vibrant urban cores. “Downtown Palm Beach Gardens” is a mall like any other mall, with a Cheesecake Factory, a 16-screen cineplex, $6.00 gourmet ice cream cones and ample parking. It is not however, as its name implies, anything resembling a city.
I spent the first 29 years of my life in Philadelphia and New York City, never owning my own car, and never contemplating buying one. It was a shock moving to Seattle, where even living downtown, regular access to a car is a virtual necessity, especially for families with children. But if you think the Puget Sound region is auto-centric, you ain’t seen nothing compared to this section of South Florida. As the local population explodes, the region is building a sprawling infrastructure that will be impossible to efficiently serve via mass transit should the need or desire ever arise. And it will. As the world hits peak oil production over the next twenty years while struggling to limit carbon emissions, the cost of fueling our cars will surely quadruple or more in real dollars. I wonder how this region, so reliant on automobiles and air conditioning, will continue to prosper in an age of energy scarcity and rising temperatures?
It is no doubt endlessly frustrating — and more than a bit silly — that Seattle should require years of public debate to determine the fate of a single two-mile stretch of roadway, and still not come to a political consensus, but I’m beginning to believe our infamously wishy-washy “Seattle Way” may be as much a blessing as it is a curse. While the governor, a relative newcomer to the debate, has apparently decided that the only possible replacement for an aging, 1950’s-era elevated freeway is a taller, wider elevated freeway through our downtown waterfront, the years of hemming and hawing and political infighting have afforded the local civic leaders and elected officials most familiar with the project ample time to reconsider the basic assumptions that guide our transportation planning.
Critics of light rail and other mass transit initiatives like to dismiss it as social engineering — Soviet-style central planning at its worst. But road-building is also social engineering, subsidizing driving and incentivizing sprawl. In a growing region like ours, new road capacity can never alleviate traffic, it can only just barely meet our seemingly infinite and unfilled, pent-up demand, while at the same time reducing the public support and political will necessary to build the type of mass transit systems that all major cities depend on.
With climate change threatening to reduce our region’s hydro capacity and rising fuel prices making our auto-centric lifestyle less and less affordable, isn’t it time to learn some lessons from our original namesake? Seattle’s first settlers optimistically dubbed their new city “Alki New York” — New York by-and-by. A century and a half later, thanks to its density and unsurpassed transit system, New York is the most energy efficient city in the nation, while environmentally self-conscious Seattle still struggles to match words with deeds.