Voters in the Pacific Northwest made loud statements on Tuesday in support of reducing the region’s car dependency. In Oregon, Measure 49, the ballot initiative restoring sanity to land use regulations, won by a wide margin. Measure 49 was designed to be the antidote to Measure 37, the 2004 initiative that allows property owners to bypass state and local land use controls. The legal chaos that resulted shortly after the passage of Measure 37 and the impending destruction of hundreds of thousands of acres of Oregon farmland and forests caused voters to do an abrupt about-face in just three years. Property rights advocates claim the battle isn’t over, but Oregonians have been given a glimpse of life without any restraints on property rights and are not likely to be fooled again.
The more cataclysmic shift occurred in the Puget Sound region, where voters in the three county Seattle – Tacoma metro area rejected a massive sales tax increase to fund new road construction and a light rail extension. This campaign was noteworthy for the break from form by the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club, which joined with tax and transit foes to oppose the referendum. The Sierra Club’s stance, derived from the realization that light rail did little to negate the environmental impact of the planned new roads, may signal the long overdue end of the counter-productive practice of linking money for transit with new road construction. The pro-transit opponents of the referendum, including the Sierra Club and King County President Ron Sims, have vowed to work toward a more environmentally-friendly approach to solving the region’s transportation woes.
The real victor in Tuesday’s election in Seattle may ultimately be congestion pricing. Faced with choking congestion on the roads, deteriorating bridges, a decades long wait for a light rail network of any scale, and a scarcity of funds, state and local officials have to throw out the old playbook and try something new. Congestion pricing offers the opportunity to simultaneously reduce the number of cars on the road and raise badly needed funds for bridge repair and transit projects. The region should take some inspiration from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who visited Seattle recently to attend a U.S. Conference of Mayors climate summit and took the opportunity to propose a national carbon tax on businesses. In April, Bloomberg unveiled a congestion pricing plan for New York City that, despite a detour caused by the State Assembly, still has a shot at being implemented. For the Seattle area, there may never be a more opportune time for congestion pricing. Surely a city known for its conspicuous need to stay on the cutting edge in technology, business and culture can figure out how to take the lead for once in managing its traffic.