Sticker Shock? Get Over It

Published in The Seattle Times

That collective shudder across Puget Sound this month had nothing to do with terrorism or tectonics. It was big-league sticker shock.

Mired in traffic, our region learned from state transportation planners that expanding the 405, 167, 520 and 509 corridors and undergrounding the Alaskan Way Viaduct could cost taxpayers as much as $30 billion.

That’s $30 billion with a “B,” 100 Safeco Fields, more than the entire 2003 federal transportation budget, and four times what would be raised by the modest gas-tax increase before state voters this fall.

But there it is. Get over it. We eventually have to do it.

And to do it right, with longer tunnels and lids to reconnect suburban neighborhoods and Seattle’s downtown to its waterfront, it may cost even more.

The good news is this: We can afford it, if only we employ a 21st-century mix of good urban design, smart technology and an appropriate formula of gas taxes and tolls so that the people who benefit from those pricey new highway lanes help pay for them.

For now, the state transportation department deserves kudos for presenting the region with realistic estimates for doing what needs to be done. They have learned an important lesson from Sound Transit’s light-rail mess: Low-balling the construction costs is a dubious political strategy. To face this tab, we need a no-surprises view of the likely bottom line.

It’s no secret how we got into this mess. The region grew and prospered for three decades, built stadiums and convention centers and housing developments — and procrastinated building or expanding our transportation system to serve them.

Meanwhile, the escalating costs of real estate, labor and environmental regulations combined with funding cuts, precipitated by Initiative 695, to jeopardize our ability to maintain what we already have.

Rather than scaling back projects, let’s expand the vision to better capture the public imagination.

• Tear down the earthquake-prone Alaskan Way Viaduct and replace it with an underground corridor from King Street through the Mercer Mess to Interstate 5 and build a new seawall.

• Expand the 1906 Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight rail tunnel from King Street Station to Pier 90 with a lid for the new Olympic Sculpture Park proposed by the Seattle Art Museum.

• Add a midtown pedestrian connection between the freight tunnel and downtown transit tunnel at University Street for Amtrak, commuter rail, regional transit and monorail users. The state should work with Sen. Patty Murray and the state’s congressional delegation to snag a share of funding — for freight tunnel expansion and the new midtown station — from the proposed high-speed rail, transit and highway legislation before Congress.

• Expand the 520 bridge with shallow submerged floating tunnels to replace the high-rises, and restore shorelines on both sides of Lake Washington.

• Expand and lid Highway 520 and Interstate 405 in the Bel Red/Microsoft area, downtown Bellevue, Renton, and Totem Lake and Canyon Park areas, to add commercial space and transit stations.

Lids (such as on I-90 and I-5 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center) provide surface for new parks, tax-generating neighborhood businesses and desperately needed housing for our teachers, police and firefighters who can’t afford homes in the communities they serve. Work with the Federal Home Loan Bank and civil-service union pensions to pay for new housing on the lids and to supplement public taxation for the lids themselves.

• Expand Highway 509 and add bus rapid transit on the I-5 corridor; and lid freeway lanes through the Eastlake/Capitol Hill, University District, Wallingford and Northgate communities severed when I-5 was built.

Such visions cost money. But that didn’t deter previous generations, who taxed themselves to build tunnels through the Cascades, leveled hills for downtown Seattle, dug a ship canal linking Lake Washington to Puget Sound and built parks through Forward Thrust.

Paying for today’s vision demands an equally bold financial scheme.

Pass the fall state gas-tax package as a down payment, work with the Legislature to expand the regional tax options, and seek funding partners for the newly created land over the expanded corridors.

Charge a variable toll on the new highway lanes during rush hour while maintaining open access on the current lanes.

We’re not talking tollbooths or quarters flicked from drivers’ windows. Today’s “value pricing,” already practiced in Orange County and elsewhere, is based on technology and consumer choice. Tolls vary dramatically from hour to hour, as technology detects and puts its price on congestion. Individual drivers, their cars equipped with transponders and satellite positioning devices, decide whether to fight it out in the free lanes, or to pay the cost of the adjacent tolled lane.

As people get used to making the choice between “time or money,” our bet is that most people will choose time. More lanes can be converted to toll lanes as people get the feel for it. Value pricing makes transportation a public utility, like water, electricity or gas. People pay for what they use, and do not pay for what they don’t.

Today’s sticker shock is tomorrow’s opportunity. If we can conjure up the will to think as boldly as our predecessors, we can turn big problems into grand solutions.

Bruce Agnew

Director, Cascadia Center
Since 2017, Bruce has served as Director of the ACES NW Network based in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. The Network is dedicated to the acceleration of ACES (Autonomous-Connected-Electric-Shared) technology in Northwest transportation for the movement of people and goods. ACES is co-chaired by Tom Alberg, Co-Founder and managing partner of Madrona Venture Group in Seattle and Bryan Mistele, CEO/Co-Founder of INRIX global technology in Kirkland. In 2022, Bruce became the director of the newly created Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) Regional Infrastructure Accelerator. Initial funding for the Accelerator has come from the Build America Bureau of the USDOT. PNWER is a statutory public/private nonprofit created in 1991 by the U.S. states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington and the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan and the territories of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. PNWER has 16 cross-border working groups for common economic and environmental initiatives.