NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

Senate Republicans unveil pavement-heavy transportation plan laden with bad provisions

Washington State’s Senate Republican caucus held a news conference in Olympia this afternoon to take the wraps off of a transportation plan that’s somewhat better than what they belatedly offered last year, but still pavement-heavy and laden with a number of provisions that are completely unacceptable.

The Republican-backed proposal, pushed by Senator Curtis King (who negotiated some details with Democratic Senators Marko Liias and Steve Hobbs) would raise the gas tax more than eleven cents over three years. That, coupled with increases in vehicle fees and the sale of bonds, would raise around $15 billion for the state treasury. Much of that sum would be spent on highways.

A significant chunk would go towards modernizing the Seattle portion of State Route 520, which runs through the Montlake and Portage Bay neighborhoods of Seattle. The North Spokane Highway would get close to a billion dollars. And a whopping $1.24 billion would be wasted further widening Interstate 405.

But the biggest project of them all would be the expansion of SR 167 and SR 509 in the south Sound. Close to $2 billion would be allocated for that project.

Over $8 billion would be spent on new pavement, while $1.3 billion would be spent on maintenance. Smaller sums of money would go towards environmental mitigation, ferry terminals and operations, and pedestrian/bicyclist safety measures.

Authorization for Sound Transit 3 is also included, which pleased King County Executive Dow Constantine, the Chair of Sound Transit. However, like us, Constantine is opposed to some of the provisions in the plan.

“We are still reviewing details of the Senate proposal, but at first glance it appears to have many of the important elements we’ve sought from the Legislature: Preservation and maintenance funding for our deteriorating roads and highways, increased local options for cities and counties, and multi-modal investment,” Constantine said in an evening news release.

“In particular, I am pleased to see the necessary funding authority that will allow people in the Central Puget Sound region to seek future expansion of light rail, although not in the amounts that are needed to meet the mobility needs of one of the fastest-growing areas of the nation.”

“At the same time, unfortunately, some parts of this proposal appear fundamentally inconsistent with our values of protecting the environment and upholding the rights of labor. These components are neither needed nor helpful in keeping our region moving, and I cannot support them.”

Several Senate Democrats also weighed in. Kevin Ranker, Pramila Jayapal and Cyrus Habib jointly released a statement outlining their concerns.

Ranker’s statement ended with a sharp and clear declaration: “As it is currently constructed, I will not be able to support this plan.”

We urge all members of the Senate Democratic caucus to follow Ranker’s lead. If Republicans are insistent on bringing what they’ve rolled out today to the floor without major improvements, every Democrat should vote no.

Here is a summary of the flaws with the Senate Republicans’ proposal:

  • It would shift money currently going to education to highways. Senate Republicans are again proposing that sales taxes collected on transportation projects go into the state’s highway fund, instead of to the general fund. This would significantly worsen our education funding shortfall (which everyone seems to agree is the state’s most pressing problem). House Democrats have previously gone on record saying it’s a bad idea, and we’re adamantly opposed to it.
  • It doesn’t put any money towards a new Columbia River Crossing. The bridge that carries Interstate 5 over the Columbia River to Oregon is decades old and in need of replacement. Washington and Oregon’s department of transportation came up with a plan to replace the bridge (and, questionably, all of the interchanges near the bridge), but that fell apart thanks to Senate Republicans, who scuttled the project to prevent TriMet from bringing light rail across the river.
  • It would hinder Jay Inslee from tackling pollution by inserting a poison pill for transit funding. Senate Republicans have included language that would redirect state funding vanpools, rural transit, special-needs grants, and pedestrian/bicyclist safety measures to highways in the event that Governor Jay Inslee pursues stronger fuel standards for vehicles to fight pollution. This stupid and shortsighted language is a nonstarter.
  • It leaves Sound Transit short of what it needs for ST3. Sound Transit is asking the Legislature for new revenue authority so it can place a Sound Transit 3 package before voters in urban King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties in 2016. The Senate Republican plan gives Sound Transit some of the authority it is seeking, but not all of it, which would hamper the agency’s efforts to put the best possible plan before voters.
  • It weakens our prevailing wage and worker protection laws. Washington has long had rules requiring that people who work on public works projects be fairly compensated. They must be paid what is known as a prevailing wage, defined by Labor & Industries as “the hourly wage, usual benefits and overtime, paid in the largest city in each county, to the majority of workers, laborers, and mechanics.” Senate Republicans want to change the rules to make fewer workers eligible to receive a prevailing wage.

These flaws, coupled with a project mix that is heavy on new pavement, make the Senate Republican plan untenable and unworthy of passage.

We have a huge transportation maintenance backlog in Washington State that this plan does not adequately address. Our first priority needs to be replacing and repairing crumbling infrastructure, especially our structurally deficient and functionally obsolete bridges. Besides, building new highways and widening existing ones won’t reduce congestion. It’ll make it worse. The end result of adding lanes and highways will be more sprawl, longer commute times, and bigger backups.

To those unfamiliar with the phenomenon of induced traffic, this may sound counterintuitive, but adding highway capacity actually makes traffic worse. This is because drivers respond to the laying of new pavement by driving more.

We have been pointing this out for ten years here on the Cascadia Advocate, frequently excerpting from a chapter of Suburban Nation that contains an excellent primer on induced traffic written by authors Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. From Chapter 5 (The American Transportation Mess):

The mechanism at work behind induced traffic is elegantly explained by an aphorism gaining popularity among traffic engineers: “Trying to cure traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt.” Increased traffic capacity makes longer commutes less burdensome, and as a result, people are willing to live farther and farther from their workplace.

As increasing numbers of people make similar decisions, the long-distance commute grows as crowded as the inner city, commuters clamor for additional lanes, and the cycle repeats itself. This problem is compounded by the hierarchical organization of the new roadways, which concentrate through traffic on as few streets as possible.

They go on to say:

While the befuddling fact of induced traffic is well understood by sophisticated traffic engineers, it might as well be a secret, so poorly has it been disseminated. The computer models that transportation consultants use do not even consider it, and most local public works directors have never heard of it at all.

As a result, from Maine to Hawaii, city, county, and even state engineering departments continue to build more roadways in anticipation of increased traffic, and in so doing, create that traffic. The most irksome aspect of this situation is that these road-builders are never proved wrong; in fact, they are always proved right. “You see,” they say, “I told you that traffic was coming.”

Suburban Nation was written in 2000, and even then, there was plenty of data showing that building new highways and widening existing ones does nothing to reduce congestion. But nowadays, we have even more.

Adam Mann wrote a story for Wired last year about induced traffic, and he talked to two researchers who looked at increases in road capacity in U.S. cities between 1980 and 2000, and miles driven in those cities in the same period.

They found a one-to-one relationship:

If a city had increased its road capacity by 10 percent between 1980 and 1990, then the amount of driving in that city went up by 10 percent. If the amount of roads in the same city then went up by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000, the total number of miles driven also went up by 11 percent. It’s like the two figures were moving in perfect lockstep, changing at the same exact rate.

It is time we learned our induced traffic lesson, and changed our transportation focus. Spending money trying to make gridlocked highways like I-405 move by adding lanes will not work. It’s an exercise in total futility.

We would be better served by putting dollars into our chronically underfunded ferry system, badly needed repairs to our existing highways, new bridges that can withstand earthquakes, and more mass transit so that people aren’t forced to drive to get where they’re doing. We have a growing maintenance backlog, and it would be irresponsible for the Legislature not to address it.

It’s very unfortunate that Republicans are willing to raise revenue to lay asphalt all over the place (their plan could be called Wealthcare for Washington’s Automobiles), but not willing to raise revenue to amply provide for the education of Washington’s youth, as Article IX of our state Constitution requires.

“I don’t know what message that sends to the Supreme Court,” House Democratic Majority Leader Pat Sullivan told The Seattle Times. “We’re willing to support billions of tax dollars for transportation while we’re not funding education?”

When I read that, I thought, At last: We’ve got at least one top Democrat starting to ask the same questions we’ve been asking for years.

The answer to Sullivan’s question is that the Supreme Court will not be pleased if it sees that the Legislature authorizing billions of dollars in highway projects while failing to invest in Washington’s schools as it has been ordered to do.

Senate Republicans have made it plain they don’t care what the Court says or does. They seem to relish the prospect of forcing a constitutional crisis.

The Court’s decisions have had a different effect on Democrats. On both sides of the dome, Democrats have responded to the Court’s decisions in League of Education Voters, McCleary, and In re the Detention of D.W. et. al. by finding their courage.

That’s important, because historically, neglecting education while periodically approving funding for new highway projects has been a bipartisan tradition. And not just around here. From Chapter 7 of Suburban Nation (The Victims of Sprawl):

It is true that the United States has the most luxurious road system in the world. We build magnificent new highways at a cost of $30 million per mile, and every cloverleaf is more generous than the last. We happily spend twice as much per capita on transportation as do other developed nations. Nothing seems too good for our cars.

Meanwhile, more and more of our children attend school in fields of prefabricated portable barracks with air-conditioning backpacks, surrounded by chain-link fencing. It is difficult to be encouraged by what this says about our national priorities.

They add:

It would clarify matters if Americans would think about schools, town halls, libraries and our civic buildings as vertical infrastructure, to be financed out of the same purse as our horizontal infrastructure. Such buildings are not mere luxuries but investments in community-making that evoke identity, pride, and participation in public life.

A society’s civic buildings are ultimately as important as its roads, and we should not use the table scraps of public funding to construct them. Most Americans would tolerate aging asphalt and fewer new lanes if they knew that their children would not be educated in the equivalent of trailer parks. Unfortunately, this choice is not offered.

To us, the Senate Republican transportation plan, which only a road warrior could love, seems like something that belongs in a bygone decade – perhaps the 1980s. It’s not anchored in reality. In reality, building bigger and wider highways doesn’t relieve traffic congestion. We know this. The evidence is in. It’s time our elected representatives recognized it and understood it.

A plan that principally proposes to improve mobility by adding lanes and constructing new speedways for cars is not a plan that we should be considering.

Adjacent posts

3 Comments

  1. Republicans never met a highway project they didn’t like.

    # by Keith Tarden :: February 13th, 2015 at 11:22 PM
  2. Well said. It’s important to add that Senate Transportation Chair Curtis King uses a completely different measure of value in prioritizing his pavement projects, the economic development potential. So, for example, a new cloverleaf in Eastern WA “opens up $X millions to new economic development.” I don’t believe this measure is on the state’s list for prioritizing transportation projects.

    # by Sarajane Siegfriedt :: February 15th, 2015 at 11:11 AM
  3. Hope the House Democrats can force the Republicans to negotiate so whatever goes to Inslee’s desk has less garbage in it.

    # by S.J. Hilton :: March 2nd, 2015 at 12:06 PM

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