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.

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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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