Junkies look for traffic fix

By ED STERN

GUEST COLUMNIST

junkieLeaders in the political and planning arenas are like junkies when it comes to transportation issues. Unable to imagine solutions beyond the old 19th-century model of the physical movement of getting goods and services to market, we struggle with how to get more commuters to distant workplaces. Think tanks such as the Cascadia Center are touted as agents of change and “breakthrough thinking,” such as bus rapid transit instead of light rail, or multi-modal systems such as Vancouver, B.C.’s rail-bus-minibus smorgasbord are served up as innovative.

Meanwhile, our transportation bottlenecks get worse, the commute times matched only by soaring fuel prices and ozone-depleting emissions. Politicians are left to react rather than lead; the future is mortgaged to demands for “relief” in the present.

Cascadia gives us still more “fixes,” just different, much like methadone treatment was presented as a solution to heroin addiction in the ’70s, not by questioning the behavior but by redirecting it in increments to a more socially acceptable cost. Problem is, the underlying problem is never confronted.

The real crying shame is how close Cascadia got to getting it right. It was in the name of its recent conference, “Transportation and Technology,” the subject of a March 17 column in the Post-Intelligencer (“We’re on the wrong road for traffic fixes”). Unfortunately, the “technology” portion was relegated to serving old notions and the underlying lifestyle choices of getting workers to distant-from-the-home workplaces remained unchallenged.

Here on the Kitsap peninsula, realization that no amount of physical transportation solutions would rescue us from our “watery box” of distant job commuting to King, Pierce and Snohomish counties has put into sharp focus the need to explore alternatives. From the time of World War II on, commuting across the Sound has become the largest segment of new primary employment for residents. With close to half our work force traveling in their cars or buses to ferries and bridges in long exhaust-choked lines, commute times stretch from three to four hours daily.

Who’s home with the kids? Who has time for “community”? And what of the environmental damage for that matter, let alone the taxpayer-borne costs for an insatiable appetite for more and larger roads, which in a generation only encourages even more far-flung commuting. We realized to be careful what you wish for; more ferries, bridges and highways would lead only to more “empty” bedroom communities and little true tax-base expansion at home to pay for public services and schools.

Back to the Cascadia-missed premise of “Transportation and Technology,” but this time with the emphasis on technology. The Puget Sound area has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of “knowledge workers,” due to our many high-tech jobs. The recent emergence of high-speed fiber optic broadband connections allows for virtual meetings, with scores of co-workers simultaneously exchanging reams of documents live time. Certainly some knowledge workers need not report for work at central office buildings every day; couldn’t they telework at least part-time? Those who labor with their heads need not compete daily with those who must labor with their hands.

We know that just a 10 percent diminishment of peak-load travel frees up roads from gridlock, without spending billions of taxpayer dollars. People could telecommute from their own communities; together with mass transit systems and intelligent private vehicle use for the rest of us, that could achieve a huge tax savings and save on social and environmental costs as well.

Like the carpool-based Pollution Control Tax Credit bill of 10 years ago, businesses could receive tax breaks for worker telecommuting. Now that would be a “Transportation and Technology” leadership forum worth attending — as opposed to more “fixes.”

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Ed Stern is a Poulsbo city councilman and board member of the Kitsap Economic Development Council where he chairs the Regional Telecommunications Committee.

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