Going Nowhere Fast

IF I READ OR WATCH or hear one more story about one or another message The Voters purportedly sent, I'm gonna—well, I don't know what. Send a message, I suppose.

I mean, seriously. Does anyone step into a voting booth to say, "I've got a plan. After exhaustive consultation with several thousand of my closest swing-voter friends, we've settled on a theme for the year. And I've got my checklist with me, so I know how to vote on all these different candidates and measures. Now let's go. We are voters, and we are a mighty army!"

No, the much sadder truth is that most of us don't vote at all, much less with a collective, predetermined strategy; those of us who do vote more often than not are only dimly aware of candidates and issues. Mix in generous numbers of us whose "message" (i.e., how we decide our vote) remains exactly the same each election, and you've got your instatrend—as artificial as it is devoid of meaning, with results as intentional as a coin flip.

Thing is, the consequences are real. And so, public policy makers woke up Nov. 6 to two truths: Governments, from Washington and Olympia to the smallest town council, have too many projects they are required by law to fund and no money for any of them; and, in the Seattle area, we have a transportation nightmare. Still.

Here's the "message" voters sent: We want cheaper license-plate tabs or we hate Sound Transit. We hated Referendum 51 because it focused too much on roads or had the wrong project priorities or used a tax increase. We liked the monorail because we Seattleites want to stick it to the politicians, or we love taxing ourselves for the government. And so on.

You call this planning?

NONE OF THIS, you'll note, has a thing to do with what mix of technologies and investment will help move our region's ever-growing numbers of people and goods most efficiently, most cost-effectively, and with the least environmental damage. None.

If the monorail passes, we have something like five agencies planning transit in the Seattle area. By all evidence, more than a few of them are barely on speaking terms. Meanwhile, our transportation needs transcend county and city boundaries.

Here's a radical notion: How about treating transportation not as a political football, a turf battle among competing bureaucracies, a gravy train for special interests, or a phantom voter message board? How about treating it as an ongoing problem to be managed? How about dedicating one source of taxpayer money to one legislative process that will determine how one agency will implement the entire mixture of technologies and projects from Olympia to the Canadian border?

I love democracy; our country and our community need more of it. But we have government precisely because most of us don't have the time or desire to deal with most of the details that make our community run. Thanks to initiatives and the political cowardice of legislators, far too many public policies are being decided by default through conflicting voter "messages" over false choices.

That applies to any number of arcane items on any year's ballot—this year, Referendum 53, the intentionally confusing ballot measure put up by the housing industry, springs to mind. We pay legislators to deal with it. But we got it instead, and most people had no idea what it meant.

NOTHING AS COMPLEX as transportation policy should ever be determined by random luck—as in which agency or interest group gets its ballot measure before the voters first. Coming in 2003: a regional transportation ballot measure; 15 or so new Tim Eyman initiatives; maybe a Sound Transit revote; plus goodness knows what Referendum 51 replacement. (Prediction: Democratically controlled Olympia will ignore the environmental opposition to R-51 and decide it was an anti-tax vote.)

How about using a planning process that is not itself a design for gridlock?


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