The Joy of 'No'

Recalling the monorail is a classic Seattle move—and a good one.

Seattle is frequently rapped as a town that can't get anything done. "What's wrong with our political culture?" folks ask. "Just build it," people cry.

But are we really so dysfunctional? Perhaps there is wisdom in our willingness to embrace change cautiously, and to stop some messes before they begin. Couldn't it be that our tradition of skepticism is what has helped our city maintain its livability, despite massive growth and change?

We like to think of metropolitan Seattle as a fount of entrepreneurial spirit and innovation. But we also like comfort, appreciate nature, and take our own time. We've long been slow to embrace "innovations," many of which have proved so disastrous elsewhere. We've resisted Los Angeles–style sprawl, we've rejected massive, East Coast–style urban-renewal projects that leveled neighborhoods, we've reined in development that could have made our shores resemble Miami's, and we've capped the city's skyline to avoid Manhattanization.

Yet we've made progress, adding most of the amenities big cities have. We've built roads, rail, bridges, a monorail, trolley lines, a ferry system, canals, cities, suburbs, parks, even a few skyscrapers. We've also fended off high-density growth, improved most neighborhoods, saved historic districts. The trick has been finding a balance between preserving quality of life while embracing changes that enhance it. Indeed, a major reason the Seattle area is as livable as it is today is because we have always been willing to say "no" until a case is proven.

Our reluctance to change has paid off. We prevented Pioneer Square from being turned into a highway cloverleaf. We saved the Pike Place Market from urban renewal. We kept express highways out of the Arboretum, Ravenna, and South Lake Union. We stopped the Interstate 90 expansion until planners mitigated the damage and disruption to Leschi, the Central Area, and Mercer Island. We've protected greenbelts, farmlands, and open space. We've been loath to give blank checks to massive rail and road projects, or to regional entities that would oversee them.

Saying no—at council meetings and at the ballot box—isn't an exception to the way we do things here, it is a vital part of how we do things. The builders, dreamers, and developers run up trial balloons; we pop them until they come up with a better idea. Despite our "world class" hype, we're incrementalists, not bold, blue-sky dreamers.

This is especially true in transportation. In 1920, we rejected a major highway construction bond. In 1937, the voters said: Don't rip up the trolley rails for buses. In 1952, we rejected a regional transit authority. In 1958, 1962, 1968, and 1970, voters turned down Metro and mass transit plans. In 1971, we halted I-90 until a better plan was worked out. In 1972, we finally approved Metro, but deep-sixed the R.H. Thomsen and Bay freeways that would have ravaged some of the city's best neighborhoods. The Regional Transit Authority was defeated in 1995 before a scaled-back version passed in 1996 and gave us Sound Transit. We've exhibited a steady skepticism on the subject of transportation taxes, especially those used to fund mega-projects or -packages.

Despite all the "nos," we still moved forward, even as our region has remained somewhat balkanized from a planning standpoint: Interstate 5 through Seattle was built and so were the floating bridges; diesel and electric buses replaced trolley tracks. We built the original Seattle Center monorail and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, laid express and HOV lanes, bought hybrid buses, beefed up Interstate 405, redeveloped Westlake, and built the bus tunnel, and light rail is on the way. It's not like all those "no" votes brought us to a standstill, but they helped focus policymakers—sometimes ham-handedly—and created opportunities for us to sort out hype and innovation. They acted as a check on foolishness.

The Seattle voters' approval of the new monorail project has been a classic case of tiptoeing toward change. The city first voted for a general concept, then voted to develop a plan, then approved a way to finance and build a plan. Now, via Initiative 83, we get to reconsider the project before getting stuck paying for something that might not work as advertised. Populism started the project; populism might halt it.

This approach is partly a response to what in retrospect seems like the foolishness of approving Sound Transit, which ran into massive cost overruns only a few years after it was created—but after bonds were sold, so it was too late to pull the plug. Going the slow route on the monorail seemed like the way to avoid the mistake of saying "yes" to too much too quickly.

Despite our general friendliness toward taxes and public investment, we've never been a blank-check city. The public has often asserted its right to stick its nose into its own business, despite the disapproval of professional politicians and special interests. We've rarely been afraid to defy the engineers and policy wonks, the bureaucrats, the private contractors, and the civic boosters who have their hands in our pockets.

Progress won't stop if the so-called Monorail Recall passes. Possibly, the Green Line itself won't be stopped. But it would be a wake-up call to again consider the best use of our tax money and civic resources given what's already under way. We can also think about whether we really want to live in the dense, urbanized, redeveloped city the monorail builders imagine—indeed, the city we must live in for the monorail system to work as something more than a model railroader's expensive choo-choo.

In an odd twist, the best "no" vote this time is registered by voting "yes" on I-83, proving that sometimes "yes" does means "no," just as sometimes making progress means stopping it in its tracks.

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