The Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study releases its final report on September 30, 1967.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 9/20/2006
  • Essay 7783
On September 30, 1967, the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study (PSRTS) releases a final Summary Report. The report is the culmination of a six-year, $1.6 million effort undertaken by the Puget Sound Governmental Conference, representing King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish counties and their major cities, the Washington State Highway Department, and other state and federal agencies. The PSRTS is among the nation's first large-scale attempts at comprehensive regional planning for transportation and land use. However, the final report disappoints many planners and mass transit advocates (and alarms Vashon Islanders and others) by concluding that rail rapid transit is not feasible in the region and instead proposing many new highways and bridges.

Planning to Plan

The unofficial genesis of the PSRTS was an October 11, 1957, meeting of state and local officials called by Seattle Mayor Gordon S. Clinton (1920-2011) to discuss a comprehensive transportation study for the Seattle region. Within weeks, King County, Seattle, and State officials commissioned a "scoping study" by the New York engineering firm of Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall and MacDonald to outline a detailed regional transportation planning process. The firm's "Scope and Procedures Report" issued in April 1959, led to the creation of the PSRTS.

Due in part to requirements of the federal Bureau of Public Roads, which provided financing for the study, the PSRTS was organized to study and plan not just for the Seattle metropolitan area but for the urbanized area of all four central Puget Sound counties -- King, Kitsap, Pierce, and Snohomish. The four counties and their major cities -- Seattle, Bremerton, Tacoma, and Everett -- participated through the Puget Sound Governmental Conference (PSCG), which sponsored the study along with the state Highway Commission and federal Bureau of Public Roads.

Forecasting the Future

Organizationally, the PSRTS was placed under the Highway Commission in the Highway Department. John Mladinov was appointed to direct the study. Recognizing the interrelationship between land use and transportation, the PSRTS began by conducing "a series of separate but highly related travel and land use surveys (with 1961 as the base year) to serve as the foundation for determining future travel" (Summary Report, 5). This data was then used to forecast land use patterns and transportation needs in 1985-1990, which would form the basis for the study's recommendations.

Forecasts were prepared for two possible land-use patterns. Plan A assumed that "the present trend of unplanned spread of residential development into the suburbs" would continue; Plan B envisioned "an orderly 'Cities-and-Corridors' concept" (Summary Report, 5). The Plan B concept, which the PSRTS identified as the preferred option, refined and reinforced the "Urban Center Development Concept" that the King County Planning Department introduced in the County's innovative 1964 Comprehensive Plan. However, even under Plan B, the PSRTS assumed (similar to the 1964 Plan) that most new population growth would occur in lower density areas outside the existing urban core.

Early on, PSRTS director Mladinov had disappointed mass transit advocates when he declined a request by the Municipal League to specifically include rail rapid transit in the study, asserting that the study would determine whether such a system was justified. As a result, even before the PSRTS was completed, the City of Seattle began its own planning for mass transit, and transit advocates within PSCG hired consulting engineers De Leuw, Cather and Company to develop a public transit plan for the region. Using essentially the same data as the PSRTS, De Leuw, Cather recommended a mass transit system that included not only buses, but rail transit linking downtown Seattle to Bellevue and to the north end.

In contrast, the preliminary PSRTS report released in 1966, and the final Summary Report issued on September 30, 1967, concluded that rail transit was not viable. The Summary Report asserted that "the predicted 1990 transit demand (except in the immediate Seattle vicinity) is clearly insufficient to warrant consideration at this time of other than bus systems" (Summary Report, 11), and was skeptical of the need for rail transit even in Seattle. The different conclusions reached by the PSRTS and De Leuw, Cather based on the same underlying data resulted from different views of the relation between transportation and land-use patterns. Although both studies recognized that land-use patterns would determine transportation needs, De Leuw, Cather also saw transportation as determining land use -- specifically, that introducing rapid rail transit would encourage higher densities, promoting growth where the system was located. The PSRTS, on the other hand, concluded that transportation facilities had little impact on land-use development, which would continue to be too dispersed to support rapid transit.

Recommending Roads

In place of a transit system, the PSRTS proposed to serve the growing suburban population with new highways -- lots of new highways. Along with the already-planned R. H. Thomson Freeway in Seattle east of I-5 (which voters would later cancel), the PSRTS recommended an Eastside Freeway between I-405 and Lake Sammamish, various connecting freeways in Seattle between Aurora Avenue, I-5, and the proposed Thomson Freeway, and many more new freeways in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. The study also called for a new Lake Washington Bridge between Sand Point and Kirkland, and perhaps most controversially, strongly recommended a bridge across Puget Sound, from Fauntleroy (West Seattle) to Southworth in Kitsap County via Vashon Island. Residents in the path of these proposed highways, not least on Vashon Island, reacted with alarm if not outrage and few of the proposals ever made it off the drawing board.

Even before the final PSRTS report was issued in 1967, Mladinov had stepped down as director, under pressure from Seattle officials unhappy with his stance on transit. With the completion of PSRTS, the PSCG stepped into the lead role in regional planning. Within a year, transit advocates brought a plan to voters, but it would be three decades before Puget Sound voters approved funding for a transit system.

Sources: Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study: Summary Report (Seattle: Gateway Northwest Co., 1967); Walt Crowley, Kit Oldham & the HistoryLink Staff, Moving Washington Timeline: The First Century of the Washington State Department of Transportation, 1905-2005 (Seattle: Washington State Department of Transportation and HistoryLink, 2005), 68, 76; Crowley, Routes: An Interpretative History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro Transit, 1993), 44-48; Richard F. Malm, Transit Planning in Metropolitan Seattle: A Historical Perspective (Seattle: Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, 1986), 4-1 - 4-3.

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