The People's Boondoggle

RECENTLY, I WAS involved in a road-rage incident. Or, rather, the subject of one. My daughter and I were headed to the Puyallup Fair on a sunny Sunday. As I tried to merge from an HOV exit lane near Federal Way into a gridlocked turn lane, it was just too much for one guy. He decided I was one of those jerks who tries to hop a line and take cuts. Instead of simply refusing to let me in, he rolled down his window and screamed like Lou Piniella on steroids. I tried to explain the situation, but shouldn't have bothered. My calm voice enraged him all the more, like the smirk on an umpire's face. His tirade lasted for the entire length of a long light.

Several cars behind me were trying to make the same awkward merge maneuver. Suddenly, a second car pulled up on our passenger side, and the woman driver rolled down her window and yelled at us from the other side. We were in an "I scream" sandwich. Even granting that it was an awkward situation—or that I was totally in the wrong—we were very weirded out. I'm a veteran of decades of commuting, and this experience was off the charts.

But it was kind of understandable. The world we've created gives us the worst of both density and sprawl. It traps many of us in our cars while we engage in the solitary and selfish act of getting where we want to go when we want to go. But we're foiled at every turn: Our wheels promise independence but have become rolling prisons. Those speeding machines in the SUV commercials barrel over computer-generated landscapes. In the real world, we're in a kind of mobile solitary confinement. Gridlock is a metaphor for how we've lost control over our lives. Daily, we're at the mercy of idiots and strangers who have little empathy or compassion left in their psychic gas tanks. And we have little left for them.

In retrospect, it seems like these folks were channeling the kind of rage that in its most extreme form must fuel a person like the D.C.-area sniper. This serial killer has been prowling the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, playing wrathful God from the apparent security and mobility of a white van or truck. Many of his targets seem to be fellow suburban drivers, folks at gas stations and parking lots.

I THINK ROAD RAGE has infected our local politics, too, especially since so much of what we're now dealing with is physical and political gridlock. It is apparent in the tax tantrums of the Tim Eyman voters; it is evident in the near hysteria of Eyman's enemies (see our expanded letters section, p. 5); it is visible in the frustration over the poorly managed Sound Transit project; it resounds in the political rhetoric around the monorail.

Last week, King County Executive Ron Sims exploded over political threats he said he received from monorail backers for not being supportive of their project. He likened monorail supporters to a "cult." Even some monorailers have joked about that quality: "Drink the Kool-Aid" indeed. I recently wrote about this phenomenon in a column for the October/November issue of Washington Law and Politics magazine, called "Monomania." (You can find it at The shrillness is getting worse as we near the election. On the Rise Above It All e-mail list, which fosters a discussion among a group of monorail buffs, anyone who questions any aspect of the project is instantly accused of being a liar, a spy for Sound Transit (or Eyman), or, worst of all, an outsider. People from outside Seattle proper are not permitted to have opinions about the monorail because it is by and for Seattleites only. Recently, a message poster who objected to the monorail's proposed route in West Seattle was flamed to a cinder. Sims isn't being oversensitive; he's reacting to a creepy kind of McCarthyism that seems to have infected some supporters of the project and silenced many of the city's so-called leaders who are afraid to tell The People what they really think about monorail.

As a longtime sympathizer with populist movements, I understand they have an ugly side, too. The same impulses can lead to public stonings. They are fueled by anger ranging from righteous indignation to the rantings of a spoiled brat. A monorail vote is seen by many as more than a vote on a transportation option. It is a loyalty test rooted in frustration over what seems to be our inexorable slide from livable to barely tolerable. You're either with us or agin' us. The monorail is a cry for freedom, for control. It is a chance to take a positive step in defiance of the compromised incompetents at Sound Transit or the beer-hall barbarians who back Eyman.

Interestingly, the monorail is a perfect Eyman-like project: a popular vote to raise taxes for a specific plan. The same people who vilify the initiative king are playing his game of mad-as-hell politics. To win, you must martyr yourself, demonize your opponents, and draw lines in the sand.

SADLY, THAT'S NO WAY to run a monorailroad. The identity politics of its proponents will mean squat if the monorail passes. Its success or failure will rest on planning, engineering, budgets, management, and how well it integrates with the city and the plans of the neighborhoods and developers along its route. It will be judged by real-world standards, as it should. Impatience to get it done—to get something done—should not be the motivator. We have to maintain patience for the big decisions we have yet to make, and we cannot be afraid to unmake decisions that turn out wrong. The monorail plan must be the right one. Just because it's the People's Boondoggle doesn't make it any better than the other boondoggles we have under way.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow