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Editorial: Getting the best out of growth for next 30 years

With nearly 2 million new neighbors on the way, we have to have a plan that serves all our needs.

By The Herald Editorial Board

You might want to scooch over a bit.

During the next 30 years, the four-county Puget Sound region — Snohomish, King, Pierce and Kitsap — is expected to add 1.8 million residents for a total population of 5.8 million people, adding to our current challenges for affordable housing, growth, transportation, livability, social equity and the impacts of all of that on the environment.

There’s a plan, of course, to address those challenges. And it’s being reviewed and updated. The task now is to make that update comprehensive and achievable without making it so wonky that the average resident doesn’t shrug her shoulders because it doesn’t paint a clear-enough picture about what it means for her daily life now and in the future, thus excluding her from the decisions that local governments will make.

The plan is the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2040 plan, the update of which — Vision 2050 — is nearing its completion this summer and its adoption early next year.

The PSRC, which brings together public officials from all of the region’s cities, towns and counties, is responsible for coordinating the response of those governments regarding transportation, housing, development, economic opportunity, environment, public health and more. The Vision plans are its template to help direct growth and prevent decisions in one community that work against those elsewhere.

And, for the most part, Vision 2040 has been effective, helping to advise the region’s growth, including the addition in the last decade of more than 376,000 residents for a total of 4.1 million people and 2.2 million jobs. Coordinated efforts outlined in the plan have helped to shift growth to urban areas and cities where services are more efficiently and affordably delivered.

But the challenges that remain — in the scarcity of affordable housing; in traffic congestion; in impacts to clean air, water and wildlife habitat; to social and economic equality — are obvious and have drawn the attention not just of local officials but a range of agencies and nonprofit organizations offering their recommendations regarding planning for the next 30 years.

Vision 2050’s update considers three alternatives regarding growth:

The first would adopt the current 2040 plan, which directs the largest share of growth to the region’s five major cities: Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Bremerton and Tacoma, allocating less growth to urban unincorporated areas and rural areas.

The second, a transit-oriented alternative would direct about three-quarters of the expected growth to cities and Urban Growth Areas and more specifically to areas within a quarter-mile to a half-mile of high-capacity transit lines, including light rail, bus rapid transit, commuter rail and ferries, directing most growth away from rural and unincorporated areas.

The third, called the reset urban growth alternative, would largely follow growth patterns that have occurred since 2010, assuming more growth for rural and unincorporated areas than the first two options.

A coalition of groups, including Climate Solutions, Futurewise and Transportation Choices, representatives of which recently met with The Herald Editorial Board, are backing transit-oriented development and urging an emphasis on policies that promote social equity, health and the environment.

The advantage in development that is focused along transit corridors is that it can increase the availability of affordable housing and deliver better outcomes on the environment, income equality and health, rather than driving low- and moderate-income families to rural areas, increasing their transportation costs and their distance from services and jobs. At the same time such development drives down reliance on the single-occupancy vehicles that clog roads and are the largest contributor in the region to emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The region’s voters — especially those along the I-5 corridor — have already helped strengthen that commitment to transit-oriented development, most recently with their approval of ST3, the extension of Sound Transit link light rail into Everett, Tacoma and east King County.

Despite the 2050 name, the plan is intended to advise decisions on development being made now; in particular as investments continue in light rail and bus rapid transit. Sound Transit’s Link light rail line will soon start construction and is expected to start service by 2024. Everett’s wait is longer — 2036 — but still within the time frame where planning is necessary now.

Significantly, the Vision 2050 update will also have a standalone chapter on climate change that will encourage policies and developments that seek opportunities for further reductions of carbon emissions.

The Puget Sound Regional Council has essentially no enforcement tools, beyond the commitments that local governments make in endorsing the Vision 2050 plan. It can, however, use incentives, in particular its authority in distributing federal transportation funding, which amounts to about $240 million a year.

The most-effective enforcement tool, however, lies in the hands of the 4.1 million people who live in the region; they will have the greatest opportunity to make sure that their local officials are using Vision 2050’s template for development, are measuring its outcomes and are sticking to commitments to serve all residents, enhance quality of life, provide adequate housing and transportation, confront climate change and protect the environment.

Once PSRC’s Vision 2050 plan is complete, the public officials who adopt it will need to take it back to their communities and make continuing efforts to explain what it recommends and how it will be implemented in a way that shows the difference it can make in their lives.

You don’t have to be a policy wonk to understand we can’t welcome nearly 2 million new neighbors without thinking ahead.

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