Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The challenge of fixing our transportation system extends beyond bridge replacement

Governor Christine Gregoire, accompanied by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims, today unveiled her plan for replacing the aging Evergreen Point Floating Bridge across Lake Washington:
Citing safety as one of her top transportation priorities, Gregoire noted that the current SR520 bridge is four years older than the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota last year, and it is nearly at the end of its useful life. The bridge is carrying 80 percent more traffic than it was designed to carry, and is in danger during an earthquake or major windstorm

Transportation engineers rate bridges on a zero-to-one hundred scale to determine when they should be replaced. A rating of 50 means a bridge is recommended for replacement. The 520 bridge is rated below 50, at 44, the governor said.

"The bridge is aging, and as any driver knows – it is also slow and crowded. The time for action is now. We need to step up and fix this problem for the sake of Washington families and a vibrant economy that depends so much on this vital link."

The new bridge will cost approximately $4 billion to complete. Half of the funding to pay for the new bridge will come from existing state and federal sources, while another half of the funding will be paid by bridge users through tolling.

If the financing plan is approved, a new bridge would be completed by 2018.
NPI staff attended Governor Gregoire's press conference in Bellevue this morning, where she outlined the financing and replacement plan. I wasn't there, but I'm told it was a good event, informative and well attended - despite the presence of Tim Eyman, who jumped in front of the cameras like an annoying leech after the press conference was concluded.

Various explanations were offered as to the choice of tolling as a revenue source, but the main reason is that there isn't much revenue available from anywhere else.

Transportation funding has been tight ever since the Legislature foolishly reenacted Tim Eyman's I-695, and though the 2005 Transportation Package and the nickel package from 2003 helped fill in part of the hole that was created, we're still not where we should be. And don't forget that several right wing initiative campaigns were launched to gut that revenue - I-864, I-912, and I-917, all unsuccessful.

An attempt was made to fund projects at the regional level with Proposition 1 - a sixteen year plan for Roads & Transit - but voters defeated that in November. With Gregoire and lawmakers unwilling to tap more money from existing sources in an election year, Washington's political leadership has settled on tolling to supply a large chunk of the money needed.

There is truth in the argument that tolls (as a user fee) are regressive. Certainly tolling is not the most progressive way to raise money to pay for infrastructure. But there is also a compelling case to be made for tolling the Lake Washington crossing as part of the financing plan for the bridge replacement:
  • Those who use the State Route 520 span the most will be contributing more towards its replacement than other Washingtonians,
  • Tolling encourages residents to carpool, form a vanpool, ride the bus, or reduce their trips altogether,
  • Having a toll in place reminds motorists of the true cost of driving. Highways are not freeways. There is no "free lunch".
Those who want to avoid paying tolls may also have the option of moving closer to where they work - if they can afford to do so; many families cannot. Workers who have flexible jobs may also be able to telecommute, although again this is not feasible for many. The greatest consequence of tolling will be a change in the mindset of drivers. What was (ostensibly) "free" before now has a cost, and that will have predictable effects on behavior.

It is incredibly important that people who have no alternative to automobile commuting today be able to choose rapid transit instead as soon as possible. If we don't invest in building a rail backbone for Puget Sound, we will essentially be forcing ourselves to drive.

And we know that people will not abandon their cars for buses which will only become more crowded and cramped in the years to come - buses that are all too often mired in congestion along with vehicles that have a single occupant.

We have decades of research and we have common sense telling us that we need to build a rail backbone now. Central Link, while a promising start, will not serve commuters who must cross Lake Washington to get to work.

Likewise, commuters coming or going from Lynnwood and Tacoma cannot use Central Link because it does not extend out to their neighborhoods.

The Evergreen Point Floating Bridge is being replaced because it is unsafe and old, but the new structure, when completed, will be just as congested with cars if we continue our thoughtless approach to transportation.

If you drive up into Snohomish County these days, you'll see WSDOT signs saying "Freeway Expansion" and then, in a circle next to it, "Improves Traffic."

Why is the state spending our money trying to deceive us? Why is the state encouraging people to drive even more than they do today? "Freeway expansion," we're told, "improves traffic." Except it doesn't.

Widening projects are entirely fruitless. They accomplish nothing. New lanes do not ease congestion, they just increase the width of our urban canyons.

This has been repeatedly documented, and still we're wasting precious dollars making our highways bigger. Back in November, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat wisely called for an end to this nonsense, writing:
We need to go into triage mode around here. To solve these crises, we need to do something radical.

So here's my idea. It would allow us to replace the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge. Buy some new ferries. And establish a new suburban Eastside mass-transit line.

Without raising one penny of new taxes.

What we should do is: cancel the widening of Interstate 405.

That huge project would add two lanes in each direction to the Eastside's freeway. It was tabbed at $11 billion back in 2002 (which, adjusted for construction inflation, equals a googlillion today).

It's not for safety — that freeway isn't about to fall or sink into anything. Canceling those extra lanes, or at least delaying them, would free up $1.2 billion that has already been approved by the voters.
At the December meeting of the 45th District Districts (my home LD), I asked Representative Larry Springer about the possibility of canceling the I-405 project and using the money for real priorities.

Larry said the idea was a nonstarter. Why? Well, because money had already been spent to widen I-405 between SR 520 and SR 522.

I didn't continue the conversation further, but my response would have been, so what? Why should we waste even more money on Interstate 405 when we have so many needs and so little money to pay for them?

I can guarantee that the day that widening is finished, traffic on that highway will be as bad as it was on the day the construction started, if not worse. And I don't need a degree in engineering to make that very obvious conclusion.

People who truly believe that more lanes equals less congestion are delusional. Have they not been to Atlanta? Or Phoenix? Where the human-made asphalt and concrete rivers are like a mile across, and the sea of automobiles in them moves at five miles an hour or less for hours? I've seen it. I've driven in it.

It's an ugly sight.

Solving our transportation crisis will require investments towards two goals: safer infrastructure and reduced congestion, both of which are equally important and also related.

The commitment, financing plan, and timeframe to replace the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge is very welcome. That's a step towards safer infrastructure. The 2005 Transportation Package was a huge milestone for safer infrastructure.

But thanks to the failure of Proposition 1, there is a lot of work to be done on the congestion front. We supported the Roads & Transit package even though we had misgivings about some of the road projects, because the package in its entirety was worth it. However, now that Sound Transit is untethered from RTID, it needs to put light rail back before the voters, without any roads projects attached... and preface the vote by explaining the benefits of rapid transit to a public that isn't familiar with the reliability and convenience of riding a train.

Gimmicks, like Tim Eyman's latest initiative to redirect money towards stopgap measures that the state already uses to attack congestion, won't cut it.

WSDOT can spend trillions of dollars making our highways bigger and congestion won't go away. Solving congestion relief takes more than money. It takes the wisdom to spend that money on solutions that work.

Oddly enough, this is what you may hear many conservatives say if you listen to their rhetoric. We agree that how we spend our money matters. Though public funds are usually spent far more effectively than conservative think, we sometimes end up spending money on projects we shouldn't, because our political leadership doesn't take the evidence from our own experiences into account.

An chapter from Suburban Nation, which I have excerpted several times before here, makes this point beautifully:
Across the Atlantic, the British government reached a similar conclusion. Its studies showed that increased traffic capacity causes people to drive more - a lot more - such that half of any driving-time savings generated by new roadways are lost in the short run. In the long run, potentially all savings are expected to be lost. In the words of the Transport Minister, "The fact of the matter is that we cannot tackle our traffic problems by building more roads."

While the British have responded to this discovery by drastically cutting their road-building budgets, no such thing can be said about Americans.
If we really want to solve congestion, then it's time our budgets reflected an investment in light rail, in a better bus system, in streetcars, and in communities that are designed to be walkable.

Governor Gregoire understands the half of the equation that is safer infrastructure, and we're glad she does. But if she is truly committed to reducing congestion, then she should endorse the cancellation of useless widening projects, tell WSDOT to take down its deceptive signage, and ask Sound Transit how the state can help with the development of an accessible rapid transit system for Puget Sound.

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