Remaining Transportation Challenges For Puget Sound

Cascadia Center For Regional Development

November 5, 2008

ON NOVEMBER 4, 2008, Puget Sound voters approved Proposition One, a ballot measure that increases the sales tax to pay for extension of the region’s starter system of Sound Transit light rail, and which adds Sound Transit express bus and commuter train service. The projected cost is $17.9 billion and the light rail extensions east, north and south are to be completed between 2021 and 2023. But because of the marginal impact that post-2023 light rail is projected to have on traffic congestion, it is clear that additional transportation challenges remain for the region to consider.

These include replacement of two dangerously unsafe structures, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the SR 520 Floating Bridge. Each could fail in an earthquake, the latter in a heavy windstorm, as well. Also urgent is securing funding for other key roadway projects such as the $2 billion in needed pavement and engineering fixes to worn-down, chronically congested Interstate 5 in Seattle. Nearly $2 billion is needed for alterations to treacherous US 2 in Snohomish County, it’s literally a matter of life and death. Hundreds of millions more must be found for Pierce County, to build the Cross-Base Highway and extend SR 167 to the Port of Tacoma.

Yet there is more at stake than simply funding crucial surface transportation projects. Our transportation challenges in recent years have been shaped not only by population and economic growth in Puget Sound, but also by climate change and growing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. More than ever before, what we do here at home in Washington state to boost mobility while protecting the environment will be influenced by – and will necessarily influence – our nation and world.

Central Puget Sound and the state of Washington must begin by squarely embracing innovation. Transportation finance, decision-making, technology and environmental protection must be viewed through the lens of the future that is already upon us – one in which relying primarily on big-ticket ballot measures (and public resources only) has become as dubious as the entire roads versus transit debate. As our region’s population swells a projected 52 percent during the next 30 years, we will need to spend billions on both roads and transit. We must ensure projects really serve their highest and best uses: providing reliable mobility of people and goods, and helping to stimulate economic development.

We must repair and dramatically alter the way transportation is addressed in the region, especially in our urban areas. Two important oversight panels, appointed by two separate governors, concluded that our multiple, overlapping local and regional transportation agencies have hurt, not helped, accountability and effectiveness. The conclusions reached by the Regional Transportation Commission and the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation, appointed by Governors Gregoire and Locke, respectively, should be reexamined.

But the steps we take next are not just about our region. Smart choices we make on transportation fuels can help change the world around us. Our addiction to oil, which fuels 97 percent of our transportation needs, is not only bad for the environment, but is a clear national security risk. As James Woolsey, director of the CIA during President Clinton’s administration, says, we are in effect financing both sides of the war on terror. Flexible fuel, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles would dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and cut our addiction to foreign oil. The Pacific Northwest, steeped in innovation, should be the first U.S. region to embrace this technology.

Each major part of a regional transportation strategy – finance, leadership, technology and environmental protection – must support the whole. The Western Washington and Central Puget Sound regions must take a comprehensive approach to designing our transportation future. To meet the bracing challenges ahead, political and business leaders must unify around a shared and truly progressive vision. Further discussions are needed, but we believe the key elements of the right plan are here, in our Transportation Action Plan for Puget Sound.




  • Legislature authorizes a toll on the SR 520 Bridge in 2009 and (for our proposed) Alaskan Way Viaduct bypass tunnel. Small portion of tolls earmarked for high capacity transit on the 520 corridor and surface transit enhancements on Seattle’s Waterfront.
  • Expand tolling in 2010 to the express lanes only on Interstate 5. Treat these as HOT (high occupancy-toll) “premium lanes.”
  • Reconfigure express lanes within existing I-5 footprint to three bi-directional express HOT lanes allowing two-way flows and eliminating major bottlenecks at Northgate and the I-5/I-90 interchange when directions are reversed.
  • On I-90, tolling can help pay for transit operations and for replacement of the 520 floating bridge. New passenger ferry routes in the King County Ferry District Plan should also be factored in the cross-lake non-SOV strategy.


  • Change state law to authorize “alliance contracting” and project cost-sharing between WSDOT and public employee and building trade union pension funds for SR 520, Alaska Way Viaduct bypass tunnel replacement and I-5 rebuild.
  • We recommend, wherever possible, using union and public employee pension funds as primary partners for major public highway/transit projects – with foreign or private equity investors as partners where feasible, and only under carefully-structured terms.
  • In any such partnerships, the public sector should retain control of transportation assets and toll rates to protect system users and ensure the tolls also benefit transit. (Union pension funds were used previously in construction of the Pacific Place garage.)
  • British Columbia offers a remarkable example of how private equity capital was leveraged with public resources to finish major infrastructure projects like expansion of Sea to Sky Highway before the 2010 Olympic Games


  • Voters approved the “Rapid Ride” BRT enhancements in King County in 2006. Why not expand it to the three counties through partnerships with Sound Transit and its successful ST EXPRESS bus service? Funding could come through a portion of our proposed regional HOT lane tolls, as well as potential sales and MVET taxes levied at regional level.
  • Amend I-405/SR 167 master plans to extend 167 to Port of Tacoma and construct one additional HOT lane (rather than two new general purpose lanes) from Renton to Bellevue on I-405. They would be twinned with existing HOV lane to provide two continuous HOT/HOV lanes adjacent to non-tolled, general-purpose lanes from Lynnwood to Tacoma. Operationally, they would fit well with the state’s current billion dollar investments in I-405 and SR 167.
  • By 2020, central Puget Sound would be ringed by a complete HOT/BRT system with expanded park and ride lots serving as major transportation gateways.



  • Bus Rapid Transit should get a new look on the East-West State Route 520 corridor. Examine potential funding partnerships with union/public employee pension funds, private developers and major employers.
  • Link the Microsoft Connector, and other private and public transit choices to greatly expand Park and Ride lots such as South Kirkland. Include electrification for plug-in hybrid vehicle recharge, use development fees and provide concierge services.


  • In the adjoining I-405 north-south corridor, regional leaders should ensure that lightweight, biofuel-burning, bike-toting Diesel Multiple Unit self-powered rail cars ply the BNSF eastside rail line – adjacent to a string of upgraded park and ride lots modeled after the South Kirkland facility. The enhanced park-and-rides and DMU rail service would complement the planned bike and walking trail paralleling the rail line.
  • Sound Transit has ample funding to contract for commuter rail between East King and Snohomish counties on the BNSF rail line. Eastside commuter rail could go into service long before the completion of the Seattle-Overlake light rail extension is completed more than a decade from now. It could ultimately extend 42 miles north to south, from the town of Snohomish through Kirkland and Bellevue to Renton, complementing rather than competing with the Seattle-Overlake route, which will run primarily east-to-west. Commuter rail riders from Snohomish County and South King County could transfer at the Park and Ride from the north-south rail and trail corridor to the East-West 520 BRT corridor. Private sector developers would contribute to Eastside commuter rail station development.


  • State-recommended investments in Stampede Pass would allow faster movement of freight between the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma and the eastern U.S. This would also allow for expansion of Sound Transit’s Sounder commuter rail between Everett and Tacoma by freeing up north-south track capacity. The proposed Eastside DMU rail line along I-405 (see above) would connect via existing track to the more westerly and parallel Everett to Tacoma line.


  • For five years, Cascadia and others have pushed for a consolidation of the myriad of transportation agencies in the region under a single unified board of directors, citing the successes in Vancouver, BC, Portland, San Diego and Denver in passing major regional transportation investment programs. That need for unified decision-making remains.
  • A Regional Transportation Commission was appointed by the legislature and Gov. Gregoire, and chaired by John Stanton and Norm Rice. Its strong and well-reasoned recommendation for a unified regional transportation board of directors in Puget Sound passed the state senate in 2007 but was blocked in the House. The Stanton-Rice report should be the basis for reforming central Puget Sound transportation leadership. We need a unified, single board of directors with powers to plan, fund and prioritize projects and consolidate agencies (similar to Vancouver and Portland).
  • A regional transportation board of directors should:1) Consolidate current regional transportation agencies;
    2) Consist of elected and appointed members;
    3) Include an advisory council;
    4) Propose transportation projects and funding voters will approve
    5) Maintain oversight and accountability on current projects, while continuing to plan for the future.
  • County borders are increasingly irrelevant. Alter MPO/RTPO statutes to establish regional transportation decision-making bodies for Central Puget Sound (King, Pierce, Snohomish, Kitsap, Thurston), North Puget Sound (Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan), and Southwest Washington – for the purpose of multi-county transportation project planning and funding. Snohomish could be part of two different regional groups, if it so chooses.
  • The three regional transportation decision-making bodies would be tasked to coordinate and pool resources with WSDOT for these programs: I-5 enhancements (including cross-Columbia River bridge), freight and passenger rail improvements (coordinated with British Columbia and Oregon), multi-county and special needs transit, and corridor-based technology improvements (i.e. truck parking, diesel emission reduction and alternative fuel/plug-in stations at I-5 highway rest areas.


  • Cascadia Center serves on the Governor’s Climate Action Team, and recommends that state and local government fleet purchases of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles should be encouraged and expanded. Either through legislative action or executive order, Washington’s state government should commit to purchasing plug-ins when they become available.
  • We recommend that funding be made available for state and local governments to convert standard hybrids to plug-ins. These vehicles should work with the grid, and funding would be necessary to assure they are compliant.
  • Another objective should be to establish an alternative fuels infrastructure at park and ride lots, interstate truck stops, and passenger vehicle rest areas.


  • The legislature should enable a Sound-wide passenger-only ferry inter-local agreement among ports, transit districts, local governments, private operators, and the state ferries to pool resources for passenger-only ferries and coordinate regional routes. The PSRC study in progress will further articulate how a regional passenger-only ferry system can best be facilitated.
  • King County has formed a passenger-only ferry district and Pierce, Skagit and Whatcom also operate ferries. All would benefit from coordination at the Sound level while allowing local communities to custom design their passenger-only ferry service and encourage public-private partnerships.
  • In addition to providing direct non-SOV connections between growing cities in Puget Sound (Return of the Mosquito Fleet), new technology passenger ferries could provide more boat building jobs to our urban and maritime industries and – as in the Bay Area – an emergency transportation network in case of an earthquake.


  • More than 400 transportation projects have been funded by the 2003 and 2005 state gas tax increases, but some are clearly recognized to be proving not feasible due to a range of factors. The legislature should identify those projects and redirect the money to regional traffic signal synchronization projects, which will help reduce traffic congestion in the sort term. The Puget Sound Regional Council’s new Traffic Operations Committee has an excellent framework for action, including test results from recent corridor coordination efforts.

Direct comments to Bruce Agnew (, Mike Wussow (, and Matt Rosenberg (



Make Eastside A Proving Ground for Innovative Transportation Ideas,” Bruce Agnew, Seattle Times, March 13, 2008.

Regional Transport: Much Can be Done Right Now”, Bruce Agnew, Puget Sound Business Journal, Nov. 30, 2007.

Fast Forward To A Time When Innovation Moves The Region,” Steve Marshall & Bruce Agnew, Seattle Times, Nov. 16, 2007.

Fast, Affordable And Green: A Regional Transportation Discussion Brief,” Cascadia Center, Nov. 7, 2007.


State Transport System Needs Accountability, Investment,” Bruce Agnew & Tom Till, Puget Sound Business Journal, April 13, 2007


Is Deep-Bore Tunnel Best Hope To Replace Viaduct?,” Glenn Pascall, Puget Sound Business Journal, Dec. 28, 2007.

Viaduct Bypass, I-5 Expansion Should Be Linked,” Bruce Agnew, Puget Sound Business Journal, Aug. 10, 2007

Bored By All Those Viaduct Choices? Think Again,” Glenn R. Pascall, Puget Sound Business Journal, March 16, 2007


Smart Transport Systems Would Ease Traffic Snarls,” Bruce Agnew & Neil Schuster, Puget Sound Business Journal, June 29, 2007


Roads, Fuel, And Funding: Declining Gas Tax Revenues Make New Sources Of Transportation Funding Essential,” Bruce Agnew & Steve Marshall, Tacoma News Tribune Sunday Insight op-ed, Oct. 21, 2007

Lessons in Public-Private Partnerships & Climate Change: What British Columbia Taught California & What Washington Can Still Learn,” Cascadia Center Seminar Issue Brief, Oct. 2007


Washington Should Be Leader In Push For All-Electric Cars,” Steve Marshall, Bill Gaines, Tacoma News Tribune, Feb. 24, 2008.

Greening The Highway From Baja To British Columbia: Cascadia Center Discussion Brief,” Matt Rosenberg, Sept. 19, 2007.

Go Green, Go Fast,” Bruce Agnew & Steve Marshall, Seattle Times, Sunday July 1, 2007

Green Wheels Spinning For Venture Backers,” Bruce Agnew & Steve Marshall, Puget Sound Business Journal, May 28, 2007


All Aboard Eastside Commuter Rail,” Lance Dickie, Seattle Times, Jan. 25, 2008.

Preserve Eastside Rail Line For Snohomish Transit Link,” Bruce Agnew, Seattle Times, Oct. 31, 2007

Rails And Trails Could Easily Co-exist On Eastside,” Bruce Agnew, Puget Sound Business Journal, October 5, 2007


Imagine A Network Of Foot Ferries – Our Century’s ‘Forward Thrust’ For Puget Sound,” Bruce Agnew, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Feb. 10, 2008.

King County To Launch New Passenger-only Ferry Plan,” Matt Rosenberg, Cascadia Prospectus, Nov. 14, 2007.

Passenger-only Ferries In Puget Sound Gain Momentum, Matt Rosenberg, Cascadia Prospectus, Sept. 10, 2007.

A Turning Point Approaches For Fast Foot Ferries In Puget Sound,” Matt Rosenberg, Cascadia Prospectus, July 5, 2007