Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Initiative 985 would cripple Puget Sound during rush hour

Last week, I touched on a number of problems with Tim Eyman's Initiative 985, which Permanent Defense is gearing up to fight.

The real intent of the initiative, as cleverly crafted by Eyman, is to steal money out of the state and municipal treasuries (which fund important public services like schools, fire response, or police protection) and stockpile it in a fund that can only be used to widen highways by adding more lanes.

And while that's bad, the news gets worse.

To disguise the real intent of his initiative, Eyman threw in a bunch of low cost gimmicks which are supposed to be funded first, before the money his initiative siphons gets spent on new lanes.

These gimmicks include roadside assistance crews (which the state already has in place) traffic light synchronization (which the state has been working on for years) and opening Puget Sound's HOV lanes to all motorists.

Now, most of the HOV lanes in the state are already open during nighttime hours, but Initiative 985 would force them open at almost all hours of the day. The only times when they would be restricted would be in the morning, from 6 AM to 9 AM, and in the afternoon, from 3 PM to 6 PM, on weekdays.

Beginning at 6 PM - and no, I'm not joking - the HOV lanes would be open to all drivers - were Initiative 985 to be enacted.

Feel a lump in your throat? Or your brow furrowing?

If you've had the misfortune of being out on the highways of Puget Sound during the early evening, you know this all too well:

Rush hour isn't over at 6 PM.

If you're a denier and you don't believe me, you can see for yourself. Here's a snapshot of the Department of Transportation's Seattle traffic map taken at 6:02 PM this evening. Notice all the black and red? That's slow moving traffic. Black is the worst; the DOT defines it as stop and go.

And relatively speaking, this was a good day. Some highways were bad but the trip north or south on the west side was surprisingly open in places.

Here's a snapshot of last Thursday, July 24th, for comparison. You'll notice that traffic is just as bad all-around.

Perhaps it's not a surprise that Tim Eyman wrote his initiative this way. After all, he's been divorced from reality for a long time.

Nevertheless, the danger is that Washingtonians (even those solo drivers who foolishly wish HOV lanes didn't exist) won't fully appreciate the terrible damage this could do to our state when they see I-985 on their ballots.

Most of the traffic jams in our region, the urban heart of the Evergreen State, occur on one of the principal north-south or east-west highways that run through the Sound. You know their names: I-5, SR-520, I-405, I-90, SR-167, and so on.

These highways are the vital corridors that link Pugetopolis together.

Since we don't have any light rail (yet) and minimal commuter rail service (Sounder only serves Tacoma, Seattle, Everett, plus a few points between) we are dependent on our highways for our commute.

It's not just our cars. It's our transit system, too.

Years ago, we had the wisdom to ensure that our buses and vanpools would stay in motion by adding or desginating highway lanes for high occupancy vehicles only. But Initiative 985 threatens to snarl our transit system in the same gridlock that currently plagues everyone who drives by themselves.

How is that fair?

Why should those Washingtonians who are doing their part to lower emissions and reduce traffic be punished for ridesharing? They've earned the privilege of using the restricted lanes that we've historically set aside for them!

Let's think for a moment just about buses, though.

In order for a bus system to attract ridership, it has to meet several criteria. It has to be available, the service has to be high quality, and the purpose of the trip (the best example being the commute to or from work) has to be one for which transit can compete against the automobile.

Routes such as Sound Transit's 545 Express meet all the criteria I just mentioned, which is why they are so popular. The 545 links downtown Redmond with downtown Seattle, serving Microsoft's Overlake campus on the way.

During rush hour, it's a very attractive option for commuters, because it runs frequently and mostly avoids the westbound bottleneck stretching from the I-405 junction to the edge of Lake Washington. Thanks to the HOV lane.

It's often faster than driving - and that explains why demand is so high. I've been on a 545 in Overlake and witnessed riders being turned away.

Imagine what will happen if SR-520's HOV lanes are opened to all comers during the middle of rush hour. What's this going to do to the 545?

Paralyze it. Sound Transit's New Flyers will be mired in the infamous Lake Washington Line, stuck in bumper to bumper bumpers for a good two miles or more, stranded amidst a sea of automobiles.

If the 545 were to become paralyzed, it would lose its competitiveness with the automobile. And that would surely mean a loss of ridership. What's the point of taking the bus if there's no advantage over driving? People who aren't transit-dependent would go back to their cars.

Think about it. People have a hard time ditching their cars and hopping aboard a bus in the first place. Buses just don't appeal to drivers like rail does. If there's no incentive to ride, people who can drive won't bother with the bus.

Consequently, with more cars on the highway, rush hour would get longer. The gridlock would get worse. The commute times more unbelievable. The highways would remain undrivable long into the darkness even in late fall and early spring.

The backups would tie the bus system into knots, bringing Sound Transit's Express service to its knees. Without dedicated lanes to travel in on the highways, it would become very difficult for ST to create accurate bus schedules.

Unpredictable highway conditions would lead to unpredictable travel times, frustrating riders who try to sweat it out.

Any rider leaving work after 5 PM (the traditional end of the workday) would have to scramble to get on a bus that would be able to traverse the HOV lane in gridlocked areas before it turned into a useless parking lot at 6 PM.

Sound Transit could attempt to reroute its buses off the highways. But what difference would it make? Either way, the service would no longer be Express.

And as for vanpools and vanshares...well, they'd be tangled in the same mess. Cross-Sound commuters would be trapped, unable to reach the ferry dock and catch the usual sailings they're used to being able to board today.

Opening the HOV lanes to everyone during the middle of rush hour is guaranteed to be a disaster. It would exponentially worsen traffic. It would hurt our economy, our enviornment, and our families. We would all suffer as a result of the More Traffic Measure, whether we choose to drive now or not.

But we don't have to let this happen. We can stop this terrible idea in its tracks and prevent our transportation mess from taking an awful turn for the worse.

We can and we must say NO to Initiative 985 this November.


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