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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Congestion anger may give boost to Kemper Freeman's long campaign for roads over rail

         

Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr.'s years-long campaign for roads over rails as the way to address the region's transportation needs may be getting a boost just as he is releasing and beginning to promote a report called Mobility 21 as an alternative to the existing long-range plans. Having completed the Mobility 21 document, for which his Kemper Development Co. was key funder, he is now seeking to generate renewed discussion among policymakers and business leaders in Seattle and on the Eastside about the region's transportation future.

An unexpected assist for the highways believers was the announcement this week from Gov. Jay Inslee that he will be proposing additional lanes on I-405 in the hope of alleviating some of the congestion on the Eastside freeway that has grown dramatically worse of late, and ease the anger of Eastside motorist about it.

Freeman hopes the governor's announcement, which he applauded, may be the first indication of a broad-based effort to force a rethinking of already approved regional transportation plans that focus on light- rail as a key component of long-term plans rather than solutions needed now that focus on roads.

The more long-term boost, by which he hopes he can bring a new emphasis to his argument that more of projected funding should go to roadway systems, may well be in focusing on the greater efficiency to be derived from evolving technology for highways and vehicles.

An underpinning of Freeman's hope to create discussion on new transportation thinking is his focus on the importance of Seattle as the "Super Regional Center," and the importance or access to it for the 8- to 10-million people in the region, including the 670,000 for which Bellevue is a sub-regional center.

"What Bellevue and Seattle have in common is we are both driven by populations far bigger than our immediate city limits," he added, noting that a key roles for the Super Regional and Sub Regional cities is ensuring access.

But he makes clear he views the challenges to a successful synergy between Seattle and Bellevue relate to what he has long viewed as misguided transportation planning for the region.

And he cautions that he has a concern that another pitfall might be what he perceives as the inability of the leadership of Seattle, as that Super Regional Center, to understand that the impact of their decisions go far beyond the city's 600,000 population. And that they have some responsibility to consider those broader impacts on the region.

"Seattle scares me because the rest of us in the region need them to be the Super Regional City and I don't get the impression they are trying to do that," Freeman said. "Our premise is that Seattle and Bellevue each has a role to play in the regional picture and Seattle is not playing its role."

And in discussing the study, Freeman, a generally soft-spoken businessman, raises his voice in anger as he suggests Seattle and the Eastside have a common enemy, Sound Transit. It's Sound Transit's focus on rail as a keystone in the region's transportation future that Freeman has fought for years, including his lawsuit to stop construction of a light-rail line to the Eastside across I-90 that was rejected by the State Supreme Court in the fall of 2013.

Freeman is a believer in rapid transit as a part of the solution, but bus rapid transit (generally referred to by planners around the county as BRT), with center lanes of the I-90 freeway dedicated to buses rather than to rail, contending that when buses reach the Eastside, or suburban points north or south, they can carry passengers to more stops with greater flexibility than light-rail.

And he emphasizes, at a time of increasing frustration about the regions gridlock and congestion, that the BRT approach can begin service and help bring traffic relief in several years rather than decades and at dramatic lower costs.

Now comes what he sees as a boost to discussions that he hopes will lead to a revisit not just the I-90 rail plan but a need to rethink exiting plans.

Freeman, owner of Bellevue Square, Bellevue Place and Lincoln Square as well as emerging pieces of what his marketing folks refer to as The Bellevue Collection, a 6-million-square-foot portfolio of "commerce, style and culture," explained to Eastside business leaders recently about the rationale for Mobility 21.

The point of having produced Mobility 21 at this time is based on what the project describes as "Five Critical Realities," the first of which, that congestion is worsening, is an obvious reality that Freeman hopes may create some new converts in business and government to his goal of greater spending on the "roadway system."

But the more long-term boost, he hopes, he can bring a new emphasis to his argument that more of projected funding should go to those roadway systems by focusing on the greater efficiency to be derived from evolving technology for highways and vehicles.

Specifically, Mobility 21 suggests that automated driver assistance systems and collision-preventing features like adaptive cruise control, automated lane keeping on freeways, radar breaking and blind-spot monitoring will lead to 50 percent more capacity per freeway lane.

In fact, as an observer rather than an advocate for either position, I'm struck by the fact a massive worldwide effort is underway to radically change the shape of personal mobility with smaller, lighter, cleaner, collision-proof vehicles running on existing roadways.

There's an inescapable sense that those advancements will require transportation planners to weigh anew whether the transportation-expenditure priorities should remain the same or be re-evaluated.

And any decision on re-evaluating and possibly revising transportation plans to reflect emerging personal mobility technologies needs to be done with only transportation benefits as the goal, with no consideration for the politics of what kind of transportation some community or business groups might wish to emphasize.

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