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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

December 23, 2014 at 10:30 AM

The Eastside and the economics of freeways

We know going all the way back to Robert Moses in 1930s New York City that freeways bring unintended consequences. First, they destroy city neighborhoods and outlying farmland and rural areas. Second, they are actually congestion generators. Every time one is widened, it soon causes more traffic jams.

That’s why if the people on the Eastside are as smart (and rich) as they are said to be they would think carefully before advocating failed 20th century responses to their traffic nightmare.

They would begin building light rail between downtown Bellevue and Redmond, filling in the Bel-Red corridor with the kind of high-quality density that is planned by Wright Runstad & Co. This should be done now; don’t wait for the I-90 bridge connection. It would connect two of the biggest employment centers in the region and improve livability.

Eastsiders would also invest in commuter heavy rail service on the north-south, partly abandoned rail right-of-way, connecting to more frequent and convenient bus service. And they would provide incentives for more transit-oriented development, as opposed to the car-dependent office “parks” of the last century.

These are the kind of projects being done in Denver, serving not only the city but the suburbs. Los Angeles (!) has rebuilt an extensive rail transit system in the land of sprawl and freeways.

To be sure, freeways create winners that become a powerful lobby: sprawl developers, road builders, the fossil-fuel industry and even farmers who want to sell out for subdivisions. Land that would otherwise be economical for agriculture is suddenly much more valuable if a freeway is coming.

For awhile, “families seeking good schools” appear to win. But the latter suffer long commute times and the disconnection of suburbia. Worse, the dynamic of always sprawling outward and all-too-often poorly built tract houses turn yesterday’s American Dream into linear slums in many cases. Not for nothing was suburbia hardest hit by the Great Recession.

Freeways create many economic distortions. Just as “free” parking isn’t really free, so it is with freeways. Roadwork and maintenance is expensive and is not covered by gas taxes. Externalities not priced in include the loss of farmland, productivity for people stuck in traffic and, especially, increased greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere.

This is not an always or never, all or nothing debate. We will always need roads. Transportation choice is a good thing, provided it is accurately priced. But if the Puget Sound is to continue attracting talent and capital investment, it needs to be building a 21st century multi-modal transportation system. For now, too much of the conversation is stuck in 1971.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Tunnel in two years

And if you believe that one

I’ll sell you a bridge


Comments | More in | Topics: Eastside economy, transit, Transportation


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