If “transportation futures” for Central Puget Sound were sold like stock, the market for recent years could be called a rollercoaster. And with a $16 billion regional transportation tax vote for roads and transit facing us in November, we’re about to plunge down its scariest dip.
The upside of the market featured state leadership in raising taxes to begin addressing decades of transportation neglect, and a slew of accountability measures, including gubernatorial oversight of the state transportation department. Late last month the Senate, worried about escalating labor and material costs, passed an $8.1 billion transportation budget for 400 statewide projects, more ambitious than either the House or governor’s version.
The rollercoaster ride dipped with the Seattle Monorail meltdown, and languished through indecision on a replacement for the state route 520 floating bridge. It reached its nadir in the “No-No” aftermath of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement vote. An advisory vote on two flawed proposals! From Puyallup to Peoria, the refrain was heard: What’s with those guys?
So just who’s in charge of transportation in our region? What’s the plan? How will we pay? And how can growth in population and commuting be reconciled with environmental protection?
Simple questions…complicated answers.
In this series of six opinion pieces for the Puget Sound Business Journal, the Cascadia Center will explore these issues in detail. We operate under the umbrella of the Discovery Institute but are separately funded, principally with a $10 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As a transportation policy center, we advocate three basic principles that should guide transportation: vision, accountability and investment.
The Puget Sound Regional Council’s impressive “Destination 2030” document details how to reconcile the region’s projected population growth with transportation and environmental needs. But sharing a vision is one thing; developing a specific plan to implement it is an entirely different matter.
Former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and Western Wireless executive John Stanton chaired a governor-appointed Regional Transportation Commission study group that reported late last year to the legislature on how to govern, plan for and finance the needed improvements in central Puget Sound. The group heard from other regions that have successfully passed multi-billion dollar tax packages. These success stories have several things in common: A single point of accountability, a mix of public and private funding and a healthy dose of tolling to reduce congestion.
Vancouver, B.C., has placed highways, buses, passenger rail, bridges, trails and passenger ferries under one roof and leverages a $4 billion public trust fund with billions in private funding. San Diego received a 67 percent “yes” vote for a $14 billion countywide package of local roads, regional highways and transit. Tolls cross-subsidize buses on Interstate 15 and an expanded 12-mile toll road that’ll serve a fast growing border crossing in east San Diego County.
People in Puget Sound want politicians to solve the traffic congestion problem. They have supported two statewide gas-tax packages since 2003. While other regions fund transportation with a mix of public and private funding, our state has been reluctant to embrace such partnerships and tolling.
Elected leaders are gun shy about too much talk of new tolls, except for those on the 520 bridge. Politicians risk being accused of bait and switch, however, if they promise to complete all the projects without the help of tolls. A new report to the state calls for tolls on SR 520 and I-90, sooner rather than later, and a statewide system of toll facilities.
Are tolls such a tough case to make to voters?
Even if you live in Marysville and never go to Seattle, you can understand why we all need to spend more on roads and transit. You see it in growing residential traffic and more trucks on the freeway carrying goods to stores. And it seems fair that the person who drives on a new 520 bridge or State Route 99 (or even the express lanes on Interstate 5 and Interstate 90) should pay a toll because they use it.
A fair mixture of taxes and tolls also affords people a choice between time and money.
If parents want to get to the Tacoma Dome for their kid’s basketball championship, they’ll pay a premium $10 charge to arrive for tip-off. It’s called “congestion insurance,” and it works.
In its final report, the Rice-Stanton Commission observed Puget Sound’s transportation system needs to be “structurally re-knit at the regional level” with a super-agency to plan, prioritize and fund road and transit projects, relying not only on tax increases but also on user fees, tolls and fares. Related state legislation for an empowered regional transportation commission, sponsored by long-time transportation reform advocate Sen. Ed Murray, is pending. It could fail to pass this session, but its imperative will remain. The imperative is ensuring that what we buy actually delivers improvements in commuter convenience and real traffic congestion relief.
This is the road ahead. It’s time to get off the rollercoaster and get moving.
Bruce Agnew and Tom Till are co-directors of Discovery Institute’s Cascadia Center For Regional Development. The Web site is www.cascadiaproject.org.