November 16, 2007
In the wake of voter rejection of the Proposition 1 roads-and-transit measure, some will say we should step back and let the dust settle. Instead, let's move forward fast.
We have the opportunity to use 21st-century tools and technology to move more people faster, greener and more affordably than we could imagine just a few years ago.
One step should be a high-tech transformation of the park-and-ride/bus-rapid-transit system so it is faster, more convenient and attractive. This may do more to reduce congestion in a shorter period of time, at less cost, than any other alternative.
There are some 50 park-and-ride lots around Puget Sound and most of them fill up early each workday morning. They are one of the undisputed success stories and one reason why bus use here is among the highest in the country. We can build on this success.
An expanded ring of high-tech park-and-ride facilities would attract and intercept cars outside congested urban zones and support frequent express-bus service. Park-and-ride lots can provide "instant density" for transit by serving as magnets to bring in riders from a larger area. The more commuters who park their cars and take the bus, the more frequent the bus service can become.
Park-and-ride facilities should be covered, warm and secure. They can be centers that have coffee stands and kiosks where commuters can pick up newspapers, dry cleaning, movies, drugstore basics and groceries — and perhaps orders from Amazon.com. We should enlist Starbucks, Amazon.com, and even REI and Nordstrom to transform park-and-ride lots to places where people want to go.
Park-and-ride facilities can be central platforms for transit options: express bus, light rail, van pools, company transit (such as Microsoft's Connector bus service), flex-car rentals and other alternatives coordinated through interactive, hands-free communication and information services of the kind Microsoft and Ford are jointly developing.
Start by transforming the South Kirkland park-and-ride lot into a model facility under an expanded urban-partnership grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Located between Highway 520 and Interstate 405 and adjacent to an existing BSNF rail corridor, a new multilevel building, with commuter-oriented retail, coffee stands and other amenities, could serve as a hub for express buses to the west into Seattle, Microsoft's Connector to the east into Redmond and rail service north and south along the I-405 corridor. Once designed, it could be replicated in a ring of facilities.
To attract even more riders, buses need to be more comfortable, safe and inviting. Follow the example of Microsoft's Connector and make riding an express bus an upscale experience with better seats, better lighting, laptop outlets and even cup holders.
We also need to go green by accelerating the transition from oil to electricity and biofuels in transportation. Future park-and-ride facilities could have recharging stations for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) — with solar panels on top of covered walkways at parking lots to supplement recharging of parked PHEVs.
Without a rapid shift in vehicle technology away from carbon-based fuels, the state cannot meet its greenhouse-gas goals for 2020. Moving from oil to electricity and alternative fuels is also a critical economic and national-security priority. Washington state drivers alone buy 3.6 billion gallons of gas a year and pay more than $9 billion — more than we spend on K-12 education.
It is also time to test variable-congestion pricing. Gas-tax revenues will decline with hybrid-electric vehicles and other high-mileage alternatives. This is the chance to rethink transportation financing with a funding system that will also reduce congestion.
Congestion pricing can have a dramatic impact. But, it needs to be introduced in the context of an improved bus-rapid-transit system and as part of the transition from oil to electricity and alternative fuels in vehicles. Citizens should have reliable rapid transit as an alternative to paying congestion fees. And, they should know that cars they can buy in the near future will enable them to avoid buying gas — and paying any gas taxes at all.
We also need to fix road bottlenecks and replace the 520 bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct using a combination of tolls, public-private partnership financing and high-occupancy/toll lanes — where drivers can choose to pay extra for express lanes. Be innovative. As an example, expand the I-5 center lanes and make them two-way-pay express lanes.
To implement all of the above, enact true regional transportation governance reform. We need an orchestra conductor who can direct and harmonize the regional transit players and be accountable for their performance.
Human imagination is our most valuable renewable resource. Time is our most valuable nonrenewable resource. Our region has the ability and the opportunity to innovate our way to a faster, greener, more-secure transportation future. Let's not waste time getting there.
Steve Marshall is the immediate past chairman of the Municipal League and a senior fellow at Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center. Bruce Agnew is the center's director. Visit www.cascadiaproject.org