The Energy Blog – By Andy Silber

The Gulf (between where we are and where we need to be)

I sit here on a Metro bus (21X if anyone cares) stuck on the viaduct because of an accident. I sit here thinking about the oil spill in the Gulf and the choices we make. Do I take the bus or drive or bike or walk to work? Where should I live? What job should I take?  Should we build the tunnel? Light-rail or monorail or buses or boats for transit? The choices are endless, some small, some large, some personal, some collective. But the choices we are making matter, as the giant oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico should remind us.

This weekend I went from West Seattle to Rainier Valley for a birthday party. I didn’t even think about taking transit. It’s an easy 20-minute drive or over an hour on the bus. The choice I made (to drive) was based on the choices we make (to have a transit system focused on getting people to downtown at rush hour).

So I sit on the bus, pecking away on my iPhone, wondering what choices WE (collectively) can make differently so that the choices that WE (as indivuduals) make reduce our oil consumption. Some deride this as social engineering, and if it is, so is building roads, so who cares.

We need to put the cost of improving transit in the context of the enormous amount of money we spend on cars.

In the Puget Sound region we spend about $10 billion a year on cars (e.g. gas, insurance, depreciation, road taxes). This does not include the huge costs to the enviorment and national security that comes from buring oil. This also doesn’t include the value of the land taken up by our roads. Sound Transit Phase II is expected to cost about $69 a year per adult, the cost of driving from Seattle to Bellevue and back for a week. For 20% of the cost of driving we could build a Sound Transit Phase 1 every year. For 10% we could build rail from downtown to West Seattle one year, Ballard the next, then Fremont and so on. We could build a small fleet of boats that crossed from Kirkland, Bellevue and Bothel to South Lake Union. We could have very interesting conversations about how to create a world-class transit system (but please, let’s not just talk).

For just what we spend in cars in 1 year we could build a transit system that was good enough that some people would decide to do without a car because it wasn’t worth the bother and the cost. I’ve lived in cities where it was easy to not own a car (Boston/Cambridge and S.F./Berkeley) and we are no where close to that. Few do without a car here by choice and if so, that’s such a big deal you can write a blog about it. In Boston writting a blog about not owning a car would be like writting a blog in Seattle about what it was like to own a Gore-Tex jacket and hating umbrelles. Sound Transit 2 alone won’t get us there; it provides almost no service around Seattle, but is designed for getting people in and out of downtown during rush hour. Metro can’t do it, because they allocate their growth (when they have any to allocate) based on politics, not demand. As yet, the City of Seattle hasn’t taken a leadership role in creating a working transit system. The investment in transit pays off when people decide not to leave their cars in the garage, but to leave them on the dealer’s lot. A bus pass costs about as much as insurance, saving you all of the other costs of driving.

Are we destined to continue to be stuck in our cars and buses? I have hope. The Sound Transit 2 vote was overwhellming in favor of building more transit and third ave. downtown remains a bus corridor. But we have a long way to go.

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