Forty-five years ago, voters turned down a rapid-transit system that would have served Seattle well. You can ride it today if you take a trip to the South.

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HistoryLink reported that Tuesday was the 45th anniversary of King County voters rejecting a rapid-transit system that would have been 75-percent funded by the federal government. It has to have been the most bone-headed moment in Seattle history.

The proposed system was 49 miles of heavy-rail rapid transit, running under downtown, north through Ballard, west to West Seattle, east across Lake Washington and south to the airport and southern suburbs. Another line would have gone through the University District to Northgate. This would have been much faster than light rail, with the capacity for far more passengers.

You can ride it today — in Atlanta. Rejected by Seattle, the feds gave the money to build MARTA, which carries about 227,000 riders a day.

But this isn’t a simple morality tale. Rejecting the “Forward Thrust” initiative (this name in the era of porn theaters becoming “mainstream”) didn’t doom the Seattle economy. Today it is one of the most vibrant cities in America. And building MARTA didn’t prevent metropolitan Atlanta from choking itself with sprawl, most of which is not near a rapid-transit station. Atlanta is also one of the nation’s top business centers.

According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s exhaustive data (the most recent year is 2011), Atlanta ranked seventh nationally for worst delays in auto commutes and congestion cost, Seattle ranked ninth and tenth respectively. According to a survey this year by Tom Tom, Seattle suffered America’s third worst evening commutes, while Atlanta was No. 9.

Counterfactuals are tricky, but… MARTA does “work” within the city. One has a choice. But metro Atlanta also has plenty of land for expansion, loads of sprawl developers and few land-use restrictions, as well as a tendency to racial and class segregation. With much less land, an environmental ethic, willingness by people of all classes to take transit and a strong central core, my bet is that the Seattle subway would have been a smashing success.

It is also impossible to measure the opportunity costs from turning down the system, but they are probably substantial. Better density and less sprawl, for example, would have made for more efficient use of public dollars and a smaller carbon footprint. Having a system in place by the late 1970s would have allowed for more extensions.

Fixing this mistake will occupy us for years. And the other Washington isn’t funding subways the way it once did, even as it continues to heavily subsidize cars.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Libor penalties

Won’t stop the banksters from crime

Better hard labor


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