By Jon Talton, June 19, 2013, Seattle Times
When I worked in Phoenix, the three most important players in the local economy were the governor, the mayor and the president of Arizona State University. At the time, it was the nation’s fifth-largest city but the economy was so limited that the people most looked to for progress were all on the taxpayers’ payroll. One would have to go far down a list of “most important” people in Seattle to find a public servant, such is the depth, strength and diversity of this business community. Public servants don’t matter, until they do.
Now we have a state legislature in gridlock. It’s no more important time, with Boeing making critical decisions about the future of the Puget Sound aerospace cluster and not in our favor, for Gov. Jay Inslee to be at the Paris Air Show. But, no. Inslee was forced to cancel because the legislature can’t pass a budget. Our legislative dysfunction is no doubt noticed in Chicago. By contrast, South Carolina will do all that Boeing asks. Critical transportation projects, including an important connection for the Port of Tacoma and the Columbia River Crossing, the latter flush with federal funding, are being stymied by a minority. A hint to the anti-light-rail reactionaries in Vancouver, Wash.: “Those people” drive, they don’t stoop to take light rail. Rail is a vital component for the future and Vancouver’s viability as part of the Portland metro area. Meanwhile, the University of Washington and other institutions of higher education, which are so critical to our ability to lure world talent and maintain our ability to feed the pipeline of big corporations and startups, are staggering under years of budget cuts.
In Seattle, the City Council refused to fund a study of a light-rail crossing of the Ship Canal. This may seem a clever poke in the eye of Mayor Mike McGinn in an election year, but it fails to show any vision. As Seattle reaches for San Francisco-like densities, it has a Phoenix-style transportation system, albeit with more buses and narrower streets. Density is good. But just fixing the streets isn’t good enough to ensure success. Buses alone won’t move people efficiently or pleasantly in a dense city.
These are but a few examples of how our elected leaders are playing with fire. A few state senators lament a perceived focus on Seattle — but the economy of metro Seattle funds and makes viable the economies in their districts. City Council members, who don’t even give form responses to citizen emails, are determined to play high school. The stakes don’t really seem big, with low unemployment in King County and a vibrant private sector.
But as it turns out, elected leaders really do matter in the economy. Much of today’s prosperity was prepared by the likes of Scoop Jackson. Without public leadership that prepares the state for quality growth, addresses the needs of moving freight and people, adequately funds education and cares for the commons, Seattle and Washington will be at a growing disadvantage against world-class competition. We will feel it first as nicks and bumps. Bigger things will eventually get our attention and maybe break us out of our sleepwalk.