The economy’s future lies in cities, not the state or Congress
With state and federal government high-centering over their partisan, stubborn ways, columnist Kate Riley argues that cities need to make their own way.
Times editorial page editor
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We’re not happy with our state and federal elected officials. About 78 percent of Americans told Gallup recently they disapprove of Congress. And Washington voters told Elway last month they give the state Legislature, on average, a D+ for driving the state up to its own July 1 fiscal cliff.
We’re tired of sequestration that cuts everything from the Blue Angels to parks to federal paychecks. The Legislature, which took two special sessions beyond its 105-day regular session, caused layoff notices to land in the mailboxes of state employees in anticipation of the deadline.
The state’s cliff was barely avoided, but not without disruption to agency and school hiring, not to mention peace of mind for citizens and local governments.
The Legislature’s laudable advances in education funding and reforms do not blot out its failure to pass a much-needed transportation-funding package. That’s in a year when a section of Interstate 5 collapsed over the Skagit River.
What are local officials to do?
It’s increasingly clear they can’t wait for higher government to act. That’s among the points in a new book, “Metropolitan Revolution: How Cities and Metros are Fixing Our Broken Politics and Fragile Economy.” Authors Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley argue that local governments are increasingly leading the economy because of paralysis at other levels:
“The federal government and the states are legacy institutions: hyperpolitical and partisan, hopelessly fragmented and compartmentalized, frustratingly bureaucratic, and prescriptive,” they write.
Metropolitan King County Executive Dow Constantine agrees. He's frustrated over the transportation package as well as the Legislature’s treatment of Puget Sound cleanup. Intransigence rules the day.
“The extreme ideology of dismantling government has taken hold in Olympia,” said the former state lawmaker.
His job, which includes keeping Metro buses running, has become increasingly challenging with the Legislature’s failure on transportation funding. Without a funding solution for its shortfalls, Metro officials have estimated that up to 600,000 service hours might have to be cut by the fall of 2014. That represents about 17 percent of the transit agency’s total service.
In a display of local solidarity in March, more than 40 mayors joined him to urge the Legislature to pass a package including authority for local governments to impose taxes to pay for roads and transit.
“We have the capacity locally to do this, if we are freed to do it,” Constantine said.
Renton Mayor Denis Law, as president of the Sound Cities Association, rallied his colleagues to join the effort that fell on deaf legislative ears. His city sits at the prickliest intersection in the state — Interstate 405 and Highway 167. Freight trucks, Boeing-bound commuters, shoppers headed to the big retail development all are cooling their wheels in gridlock.
“We can’t ignore these needs indefinitely,” Law said. “We can’t wait.”
Both Law and Constantine sounded like they were reading from Katz’s book.
“What Jennifer and I try to do is channel what we’re hearing,” said Katz, founding director of Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program. They hear a lot of the same frustrations and are impressed to see cities innovating to solve problems by creating what they call innovation districts and establishing their own partnerships, including in trade.
“Cities tend to be problem solvers,” he said. “Party is less important, ideology is less important. Solving problems, being pragmatic is what matters.”
Their book cites “the remarkable development of Seattle’s South Lake Union area,” a major initiative of former Mayor Greg Nickels’ administration to make city investments to attract private investment.
The trolley, the Mercer Street improvements, Lake Union Park, Nickels listed them: “All of those things were signals we wanted to attract private investment.”
Katz and Bradley see metropolitan areas driving a revolution from the bottom up.
The result they picture is a power shift where leaders of these city-states are wielding much more influence at all levels. They are not forsaking but working with their federal and state counterparts and they are much more influential.
“State and national governments will eventually have to bend to the people who are driving our country forward,” Katz predicts.
Judging from the intransigence we’ve seen in Congress and, to a lesser extent, Olympia, that would be a good thing.
.A previous version of this article, originally published Aug. 3, 2013, incorrectly stated that Interstate 5 intersected with Highway 167 in Renton. Interstate 405 does..