Transit Troubles

When Seattle slew Peter Jennings


SEATTLE – What you don't know about the Seattle bus system might kill you.

OK, that might be a little over the top and vaguely untrue, but hey, if TV folks can do teasers that way, why can't I?

Still, let's rephrase: What you don't know about the Seattle bus system might cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Even billions.

Stand behind the yellow line while I explain.

It's not often that I travel in the same circles as ABC News anchor Peter Jennings.

But that's what happened this past weekend when Mr. Jennings and I both visited the Emerald City.

He was there to take a "closer look… at some of what is happening in Seattle. We have been listening to people about a wide range of issues." I was there for a workshop on producing TV campaign debates sponsored by a group called Best Practices in Journalism.

We never crossed paths. Maybe because I was on a public bus.

Jennings reported on last Friday's World News Tonight that Seattle "has some of the most congested streets in the nation." He interviewed a city council member who complained, "We're one of the few cities of our size without a mass transit system, and it's been years and years in process and we still don't have anything started yet."

Let me offer to both Mr. Jennings and the city council member an answer based on my personal experience. You don't need more mass transit. The buses you already have work just fine.

When I arrived at the airport on Friday, I had three options to get to my downtown Seattle hotel: an expensive cab, a moderately pricey group shuttle bus, or a public bus.

I chose option three. The public bus cost $1.25. The trip took about 20 minutes. That's just a wee bit longer than it would take in a cab or shuttle bus. And it was a pleasant ride. No traffic problems. Part of the bus route is underground in special tunnels designed for bus use only.

Now, I'm not sure what method of transportation Mr. Jennings took from the airport, but I'll bet it was something a bit more sophisticated than a public bus. Let's presume, for the sake of argument, that it was a private car. Maybe even a hired limo. Let's further presume that perhaps Mr. Jennings' vehicle got stuck in some traffic on the way downtown. Perhaps that's what instigated his "congested streets" remark.

Now, I'm a huge fan of individual consumer choice. Drive a car? Absolutely. Hire a car? You bet. Take a bus? By all means. Ride a bike? Go for it.

What I don't get is why Seattle needs a new massive, er, mass transit system (assuming, again, that it's taxpayer-funded) when there already are plenty of ways to get around town. Taxpayers have shouldered the burden for public buses. Isn't that enough?

Yes, I'm just visiting here. Soon I'll be back on that $1.25 bus, headed to the airport and a flight home to Washington, DC.

You've surely heard about Washington, DC's traffic problems: congestion, gridlock, rush hours that last all day, etc. It's just like Seattle, if you believe Mr. Jennings' report.

But didn't we solve that? Didn't taxpayers cough up billions of dollars building a Metrorail subway system to make our lives a little easier?

I'm clearly no urban planner or transportation expert. I just know that when I get to the airport in Washington, I'll hop on the subway to get home. The trip will cost me $1.25.

Or perhaps I can find a TV news star willing to split an expensive cab with me.