-- Once touted as America's most-livable city, Seattle now ranks as one of its most gridlocked, and the congestion has traffic backed up onto the November ballot.
Frustrated state voters next month will decide two ballot measures -- one that would raise the gasoline tax to pay for $7.7 billion in road improvements and public transit and a competing tax-revolt measure to slash auto excise taxes that provide money for public transit agencies.
At the same time, Seattle city voters will decide whether to increase their auto taxes to raise $1.7 billion for a monorail line proposed as a popular alternative to a controversial light-rail project that has become mired in cost overruns and delays.
Pollsters say all three are too close to call. But Mayor Greg Nickels warns that there is potential for a "muddled message" to local leaders.
"People are frustrated," former mayor Charles Royer said. "They seem to be saying: 'Do something. Anything. Even if it's wrong!' "
That frustration can be traced to clogged roads in a city that has rejected rapid-transit plans, opting instead for a system of diesel and electric-powered buses that are stuck in the same traffic jams as everyone else.
A generation ago, Seattle was rated as one of the nation's "most livable" places, based on attributes such as its moderate climate, high education levels, proximity to national parks and an economic boom fueled by the success of Boeing jetliners and, more recently, Microsoft software.
But that praise has been muted by rapid population growth, suburban sprawl and worsening traffic congestion. In the Texas Transportation Institute's most recent ratings of 75 U.S. cities, Seattle's traffic ranked fourth-worst in the nation, tied with what people here call "that other Washington." Seattle's gridlock ranks closely behind Chicago and San Francisco-Oakland and not so far behind the perennial traffic champion -- Los Angeles.
Civic leaders blame the congestion on the city's difficult geography, conflict-adverse political culture and failure to build rapid transit when it could have been done far more cheaply.
"We are a geographically challenged city," said Gary Lawrence, a consultant and former Seattle city planner. Seattle's steep hills, waterways and hourglass shape provide for nice views, but all that topography also makes it much more difficult and costly to build roads or transit, he said.
In the 1960s and 1970s, local voters rejected rapid transit proposals, but they also stopped plans for a network of freeways that would have slashed through inner-city neighborhoods. So although the region's population has doubled in 20 years, it has built virtually no new roads or transit systems to move all those people.
"Generations of leadership simply failed to address transportation for 25 years," Nickels said. "There were other things at the top of the political agenda."
Meanwhile, the neighboring cities of Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., which faced similar landscape challenges, built rail transit systems that carry tens of thousands of commuters daily. And federal dollars that had been earmarked for Seattle's rapid transit were diverted to Atlanta's rail system.
In 1995, regional voters approved a public transit plan that included a starter light-rail line. But the new agency, Sound Transit, has cut back that line in the face of cost estimates of $200 million per mile -- six times the national average.
Early this year, the state Legislature approved a nine-cent gas tax to pay for $7.7 billion in transportation projects but decided to submit it to voters for approval in the form of Referendum 51.
That plan sparked a countermeasure, Initiative 776, sponsored by the anti-tax group Permanent Offense, which has promoted four tax-revolt initiatives in recent years. The latest initiative seeks to repeal local auto license tab fees and limit those fees to a flat $30 a year.
Both measures will appear on the ballot.
During the same period, local civic activists have promoted an elevated monorail system modeled after the short line built for the city's world's fair in 1962. The city establishment initially opposed that idea, but it has gradually gained support.
Because the monorail would be paid for with an increase in the annual fee for car license tabs, Seattle's auto tax could be approved on the same day that statewide voters ban any such increase.
The result is political gridlock, planner Gary Lawrence said. He attributes the stalemate to Seattle's "Scandinavian-Utopian" political culture, which spreads political power widely and prefers to make major decisions by popular consensus.
It is ironic, Lawrence said, that Seattle has encountered gridlock during a period of extraordinary prosperity fueled by Microsoft billionaires such as Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
"This is a rich region -- even in the midst of a recession," he said. "Too bad we didn't take more advantage of our wealth."
Nickels sees a "silver lining" in the confusing array of ballot measures. If voters approve the statewide gas tax and the monorail, and reject the anti-tax Initiative 776, the city will be on its way to building a "world-class transportation system," he said.
But that's far from certain. The tax-revolt measure draws broad support from Eastern Washington and other rural parts of the state where taxpayers resent Seattle's prosperity and liberal politics.
It is conceivable that voters will reject the gas tax and slash the auto license fee, Royer said.
"And that would leave about 100,000 commuters per day with no place to go."