March 13, 2008
By some measures, traffic congestion is worse on the east side of Lake Washington than in Seattle itself, with hourlong commutes to Bellevue from Everett and Auburn becoming common. Striking growth, led by some of the world's most innovative companies, has transformed Eastside suburbs into a dynamic new metropolitan core, apart from Seattle and with its own transportation challenges.
Harnessing that entrepreneurial spirit to cut the Gordian knot of regional transportation politics and traffic bottlenecks will require joint public and private funding, new technology and better decision-making. As Sound Transit is seeking new ideas through a major community-survey effort, the region should recognize that the vibrant Eastside crescent is a good place to test some key transportation solutions.
The Puget Sound Regional Council is working to help better coordinate signalized intersections; there are 2,300-plus in our four counties. Greater synchronization, where signals actually talk to each other, could significantly cut congestion. Related strategies use real-time traffic information to alter electronic roadway signs, signals and even lane configurations, maximizing capacity. Applying developer contributions to higher-tech traffic operations is a natural under the state's Growth Management Act. The Eastside is an ideal proving ground.
Then, let's improve the bus experience. On the Eastside, crucial suburb-to-suburb transit remains a challenge even after the 2006 Metro measure added new express bus routes. Microsoft's private Connector buses (pictured above, right) with their reservation system, Wi-Fi and that magical morning-commute invention, the cupholder, are the gold standard. Other Eastside companies could copy this approach, utilizing grants from the state's Trip Reduction Performance Program and, eventually, carbon-tax credits.
The Eastside is also prime territory to jazz up the dead zones we call park-and-ride lots. They're transformable into high-tech hubs with joint housing, retail services, plug-in electric vehicle stations, technology-office clusters and many transportation choices. One could be a new idea called flexible carpooling, pioneered by a New Zealand entrepreneur named Paul Minett now seeking regional business and political support. Prescreened drivers and commuters pair up in designated park-and-ride areas for trips to different employment clusters, under a market-based credit and debit system. Missed your car pool? Catch the next one!
The abandoned BNSF rail corridor from Snohomish to Redmond and Renton offers a potential 42-mile rail and trail combo that, with track rehabilitation, could feature quiet, high-tech, double-decked, biodiesel-burning, bike-carrying, north-south trains to connect to east-west express bus lines on Highways 522 and 520, and Interstate 90. Private sector cost-sharing is distinctly possible. One example: At the nexus of the rail line, Highway 520 and Interstate 405, where an old Safeway distribution center stands, Wright Runstad is proposing a 36-acre office and housing development (the Spring District). The company could share costs for the trail and a commuter rail station complex.
At stops in Bellevue and South Kirkland, why not add a remote airport clearance station for future transit connections to Sea-Tac Airport that are actually convenient for Eastsiders, as suggested by Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant? Utilizing commuter rail that could eventually go as far as Renton, and then a speedy connecting bus, you could first check your bags and then go through all the plane preboarding paces with no stinting on security. Upon arrival at the airport, you'd go straight to your gate.
What about state highway projects from Snohomish County to Pierce County that were only partially funded with recent gas-tax hikes? We should use current state transportation-benefit-district legislation as an umbrella to leverage private funding with new public funding in the three-county area.
The centerpiece could be the I-405/Highway 167 corridor from Lynnwood to the Port of Tacoma. Convert the I-405 HOV lanes into time-variable, electronically tolled high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes. (High-occupancy cars, van pools and employer-sponsored and public tran-sit would travel free, while solo drivers would pay a toll.) Then add another HOT lane in each direction on I-405 and on Highway 167, where one will open on each side of the King County stretch this spring under a state pilot program.
You'd then have at least two managed lanes and two general lanes, each way, for the entire corridor. This would include the unfunded 11-mile extension to the Port of Tacoma.
Tolls for the HOT lanes would retire the construction debt and pay for the operations of the expanded corridor, including additional express buses.
To add to the regional roads and transit funding pool, implement more HOT lanes and also bring in public employee or building-trade-union pension funds as investors, while maintaining public control of the assets, and tolls or fares.
Eastside suburbs already becoming an economic powerhouse can transform surface transportation by helping the broader region transcend boundaries, harness technology and private initiative, and prioritize completion of the best projects, sooner rather than later. Let's seize the opportunity to innovate. Our region's future depends on it.
Bruce Agnew is director of Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center for Regional Development. More at www.cascadiaproject.org.