Region Must Take Next Step To Improve Transportation

Original Article

Let’s face it: we’ve been way behind in transportation investment. Now that the state has stepped up to the plate, it is time for Puget Sound to do its part as a region.

We are feeling the effects of a backlog of $30 billion to $50 billion from the 1980s and 1990s – decades of rapid growth in population and traffic but little increase in transportation funding. It was up to the Legislature to act first and it has done so. Combined with the Nickel program adopted in 2003 and the Transportation Partnership program passed in 2005, the Legislature has provided more than $13 billion for statewide transportation improvements, many of which are focused on projects in Puget Sound.

But there is more to be done. Further improvements in roads and transit are essential to catch up with existing transportation needs and to keep ahead of the growth we see around us every day. The program adopted by the Legislature followed the approach recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation report issued in December of 2000.

Arguing that Washington’s smaller rural counties cannot be expected to send major funding to Central Puget Sound, the Blue Ribbon report insisted that a partnership between the state and the region would be essential. On top of a basic state commitment, the Puget Sound region would have to make its own major commitment to tackle its transportation problems.

Fortunately in Puget Sound, we have the means. The question is whether we have the will. Parallel to the Blue Ribbon report, the Puget Sound Regional Council developed Destination 2030, an award-winning long-range transportation plan for Puget Sound. Adopted in May of 2001, Destination 2030 provides the framework for an integrated investment program, including freeway improvements, high capacity transit, regional arterials, local bus service, car pools, van pools and more.

In 1990 the Legislature authorized a regional transit agency we know today as Sound Transit. Now, 16 years later – having successfully added express bus service and commuter rail service to the region – Sound Transit is also well underway with its Link light rail construction. Light rail is scheduled to be up and running by the end of 2009.

In order to sustain that momentum, Sound Transit has developed a draft list of second phase improvements, which it has scheduled to turn into a proposed second phase program by early this summer.

For regional roadways, the Legislature created the Regional Transportation Improvement District (RTID) in 2002. Focused mostly on major highways, the RTID has recently cut a $19 billion long-term program down to a $7 billion first-phase program, which it hopes to match with Sound Transit’s next transit investment proposals. The joint road and transit program would create the state’s first regionally integrated transit and roadway investment package, ridding us of the isolated, stove-piped, competitive proposals to which we are accustomed.

Not all issues are resolved. Many believe Central Puget Sound needs a single regional transportation authority – rather than separate transit, roadway and planning agencies. Both Senate Transportation Chair Mary Margaret Haugen and House Transportation Chair Ed Murray have drafted proposals requiring Puget Sound to get its governmental act together. Both proposals require a short-term study commission to design a long-term, unified transportation governing structure for the region. The two proposals have slight variations, but as with the concept of a matched-up RTID and Sound Transit investment package, they both assert that Puget Sound would benefit from a long-range transportation plan with a single point of accountability.

The state has acted; for the next step in transportation, it’s the region’s turn.

Bruce Agnew is director and Dave Earling is senior fellow for the Cascadia Center for Transportation and Regional Development.

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.