By Jake Lynch
If you’re looking at the history and future of transportation and transit projects around Seattle, Jim Hebert is an interesting guy to talk to.
As the founder of research company Jim Hebert Research, the economist and Professor of Business has worked for a wide range of clients, from government agencies like Sound Transit and King County Metro, to cities, including Seattle, Bellevue and Redmond, and multinational companies, including Toyota. He was even hired by the attorneys defending Gary Ridgway, better known as the Green River Killer.
His clients pay him for his insight — to study what is really happening on the ground, to uncover trends, patterns of spending, of consumption, and, pertinent to transportation, of ridership, travel habits, and work and lifestyle choices.
In this capacity he was a part of the team that designed the southern most sections of the newly opened light rail from Seattle to Tukwila.
But far from being an agency number cruncher, Hebert has allegiances and connections, particularly in the Bellevue business community.
He is a former board member of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce and Bellevue Downtown Association.
On the wall of his Bellevue office is a framed newspaper article heralding well known Eastside businessman and creator of Bellevue Square, Kemper Freeman, a friend as well as a business associate.
Freeman is one of the driving forces behind the Eastside Transportation Association (ETA), a group with a history of opposing public transit initiatives, particularly light rail.
It is Freeman’s name on the writ of prohibition the ETA launched against Gov. Christine Gregoire recently to stop Sound Transit using lane space on the Interstate 90 for an Eastside expansion.
(He likens Freeman’s battle against Sound Transit as “David against Goliath,” with Freeman playing the role of David.)
This is the same Sound Transit that Hebert’s wife, Cynthia Sullivan, was once a board member of.
During her time on the King County Council, Sullivan was a passionate advocate of light rail in the area, and once said “we are going to get it built. I am not going to back away from it.”
So possibly more than any other figure, Hebert represents the diversity of interests all jostling for control of the area’s transportation future – business people, politicians, engineers, and lobbyists.
“At times they are on the same page,” he said. “Generally it is an adversarial relationship.”
The way Hebert sees it, the transportation plans currently on the drawing board do not adequately connect with the patterns of work and lifestyle that he is documenting – particularly the growing pattern of the “reverse commute,” people who live in Seattle and work on the Eastside, rather than the other way around.
“This is a very interesting phenomenon,” Hebert said. “When we lived in North Wedgwood, my wife would be able to catch the bus to her work in Seattle, but I would have to drive to work in Bellevue. That pattern has continued. There are more desktops on the Eastside than rooftops, it’s become an employment center. The leadership has chosen to build businesses here, and the employees have followed.”
Hebert said that high house prices on the Eastside, and the appeal to young people of Seattle’s urban experience, have accentuated this trend.
“The real estate market will tell you that people will drive to where they qualify for a mortgage,” he said. “Essentially, Snohomish, Seattle, Pierce counties, have become the suburbs of the Eastside. It’s a mega trend.”
Though these are ideas familiar to many, particularly Eastside workers and residents, Hebert said transportation planners are not taking them on board.
“This is very disconcerting, this disconnect with suburban communities,” he said. “They don’t realize the model is changing, and they need to adapt. The public won’t change. When people lead, the leadership should follow.”
He said that the light rail concept was making false assumptions about the American public, and, as a result, was not popular among Eastside business people.
“You have to ask yourself, why is the Eastside business community not supporting a service that they don’t have to pay for? Because they don’t see the benefit for themselves and their employees,” Hebert said. “They see it as only serving those it’s convenient to.”
He added the light rail plan assumed that people would walk a certain distance to get to a station.
“Studies have shown that the average American individual will not walk further than 1100 feet,” he said. “This is not Europe.”
Hebert said that he personally was interested in other means of reducing congestion on Eastside roads.
In his office, employees go home in two shifts, at 5 p.m. and at 9 p.m.
Employees are given bus passes, and those leaving at 9 p.m. are driven to the Bellevue Park and Ride.
He said employers should be looking at things like encouraging their employees to do their shopping, or fitness workouts, after work.
“This balances out the peak flows,” Hebert said. “It is about changing lifestyle to match traffic patterns.”
But, he admitted, public transportation usage constitutes a very small percentage of trips from and to the Eastside.
“The public understands one bus will replace plenty of cars. But not their car,” he said.
Hebert said he had noticed people are buying fewer cars, driving their old cars longer, and taking into account gas prices by combining trips.
Whilst shedding the car in favor of public transit is an effective cost saving change, Hebert said Eastsiders “work around the calendar, rather than the checkbook.”
Which brings the conversation to tolls, particularly variable tolls, where as roads become more congested the toll price increases, encouraging drivers to use less congested routes.
“As an economist and a researcher, this is a variable that allows us to manage demand,” Hebert said. “Tolls are very price elastic. But you have to consider is it fair? Is it just to all? It comes back to the checkbook and the calendar. For an attorney making $520 an hour, then the cost of a toll is minimal if it gets them there faster. But for a younger person, maybe in an entry level position, then the toll is going to be more of a concern.”
Hebert said that, given the car is still king when it comes to getting around the Eastside, the condition of roads was a big concern.
In a recent survey of his, the question of how well roads are maintained scored a ‘D’, and about 47 percent of respondents gave “extremely low” scores on things like resurfacing, striping and signage.
But, in the bigger picture, Eastside residents have other, more pressing things on their plate.
According to Hebert’s research into the top priorities for people at the moment, transportation rated equal fourth, with the economy, behind healthcare, taxation, education and the environment.
Jake Lynch is the editor of the Issaquah Reporter. he can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.