Seattle’s awful traffic? Brace yourself, because it’s about to get worse

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Seattle, with jobs and population feverishly growing, staggers under worsening traffic, crowded buses, potholed pavement and crumbling or nonexistent sidewalks. Transportation dysfunction is here now and getting worse. Even the simplest daily task of moving around Seattle gets worse every year. Traffic woes erode economic health and threaten future prosperity. Livability of a wonderful city diminishes under our feet.

A new mayor’s action or inaction will improve or worsen our transportation afflictions. We cannot afford inaction. A mayor’s leadership, energy and vision must shape a functioning city five and 10 years from now. Here is the pressing list of problems facing the new mayor:

It’s about to get worse

Today’s downtown mess is nothing compared to what 2018 and 2019 will bring.

Expansion of the Washington State Convention Center begins next year, and by 2019 it will force hundreds of daily bus trips from the downtown transit tunnel, some onto downtown streets.

Compounding the disruption will be a new two-way bike lane squeezed onto Fourth Avenue, removing an existing lane for cars, trucks and buses, and complicating traffic.

Down on busy First Avenue construction is coming for the Center City Connector, a segment of Seattle’s streetcar system linking the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcar lines.

On the waterfront, the aging Colman Dock gets a major rebuild confounding ferry traffic. And don’t forget the nine-month demolition of the elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct starts in early 2019.

Meanwhile, expect new bottlenecks and inconveniences as Seattle’s relentless construction boom brings thousands more new employees, many living nearby and many coming in buses or cars, to join Seattle’s commuting crush.

Better bus service, please

Bus riders, would-be riders, vexed employers, gridlocked drivers, and even all politicians agree that better bus service is the quickest fix to help people survive and keep traffic from getting even worse. The popularity of Metro’s RapidRide routes points the way.

Even the eventual promise of Sound Transit’s light-rail service requires better connecting bus service, but Sound Transit doesn’t plan to pay for that.

In high-traffic neighborhoods such as South Lake Union, where a light-rail station is more than a decade away, shouldn’t Metro and Sound Transit infill now with added regional express-bus service?

Seattle’s new mayor also should support app-enabled, on-demand transit services that rely on smaller vehicles at lower cost when a regular bus is too big or service is not convenient.

Rhetoric alone brings not one more seat for the sardines already packing rush-hour buses, never mind those left at the curb in the rain waiting for the next bus. The new mayor must lead employers and transit riders together in demanding funding solutions and assuring more and better services right now.

Interstate 5: Fix it now!

I-5 is the 900-pound gorilla of Seattle traffic. Today, the interstate routinely fails to get people in, out or through Seattle. Its choked ramps back up traffic from one end of the city to the other.

For our future survival and continued regional prosperity, I-5 needs to be a very different, transformed roadway in 10 years, and that means starting now. Band-Aid solutions are expensive and will only forestall fractions of the ever-growing delays.

Cary Moon or Jenny Durkan must go where no mayor has gone before, leading local officials and representatives, businesses and gridlocked citizens to insist Olympia match here the billions spent elsewhere across the state on much less critical transportation needs.

The only hope for Seattle lies in repairing and rebuilding aged pavements, developing high-volume toll lanes and retrofitting I-5’s vulnerable structure to protect against earthquake destruction, crippling the city.

For whom the tolls?

The state has no regionwide tolling strategy. Yet, in 2019, tolling will commence on the new downtown Highway 99 tunnel. That means more traffic will avoid the toll and further clog city streets and I-5.

As crazy as that seems, it may be best to stick with the tolls, but only if the new mayor insists that a lot of the captured revenue be devoted to car, truck and bus improvements easing Seattle’s traffic bottlenecks.

As with the big I-5 issues, a solution will require better collaboration between Seattle and Olympia than has been seen for years.

Fix crumbling roads, bridges and sidewalks

Potholes are only the skin-deep symptom of the problem. Year after year, Seattle has fallen behind as its streets crack and crumble from deferred maintenance. Bridge maintenance lags, too. Bad roads actually worsen congestion and burden citizens with expensive vehicle wear-and-tear. But what’s really ugly is that every year’s delay sees deeper damage to failing pavements and ballooning cost and disruption for eventually putting things right.

A sustainable city keeps its transportation infrastructure in repair.

Voters want to know that the $930-million Move Seattle levy is delivering promised relief, and that Seattle’s Department of Transportation is getting the job done.

Innovate, innovate, innovate

Encourage the arrival of driverless vehicles. Likely in the tenure of the new mayor, driverless vehicles will be moving deliveries and people on Seattle’s streets. Change won’t come overnight, but technology’s march makes it inevitable. As change comes, technology must make things not just more convenient for some, but safer, and more accessible for everyone, including pedestrians.

Similarly, technology, enhanced communication and best practices must be better utilized so that when the next fish truck tips over, the city can avoid another case of 8-hour gridlock.

And will the next mayor please prove that we are moving as fast as possible to modernize traffic-signal operations?

Time for hard choices

As mayor, Moon or Durkan will be asked to decide who gets to use scarce existing pavements and for what. Old ways aren’t always the best ways. No street today can be all things to all people and for all purposes. Trade-offs must be measured and debated. Will Seattle dedicate more lanes for speedy, high-capacity bus trips? Can it protect freight mobility and build safer crossings for pedestrians, and bike lanes that matter? Seattle’s next mayor must decide what really works, and for whom. These are controversial minefields for a new mayor, often generating the loudest dissatisfied outcries at how the city manages its traffic and transportation.