Fast, Affordable & Green: A Regional Transportation Discussion Brief

The voters of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties have turned down Proposition One on roads and transit. The question will be, what’s next? The Cascadia Center offers the following ideas on regional transportation, to help deliver congestion relief and safety sooner rather than later, at an affordable price, while cutting greenhouse gas emissions and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

Key discussion components of our Fast, Affordable and Green transportation concept are:

  1. ADDRESS GLARING NEEDS FIRST. Replacement of two dangerously unsafe regional assets must be fast-tracked; the State Route 520 Floating Bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Private capital and tolling need to be closely considered in each case. For the viaduct, an inland bypass tunnel should be carefully analyzed, with firm public cost controls. (Cascadia Center will hold an international symposium on deep bore tunneling Dec. 14 in Seattle – more details to come under “Conferences/Events” at our Web site.) For the 520 bridge replacement, the tunnel option now under state review must get a scrupulously fair evaluation.
  2. PRIORITIZE CONGESTION REDUCTION. Congestion reduction must become the top priority of state and Central Puget Sound regional transportation planners and decision-makers. Road and transit projects must be selected based on congestion-reducing impact per dollar spent. A projected population increase of 50 percent in Pierce, Snohomish and King Counties by 2040 makes this approach imperative.
  3. MAKE THE NECESSARY HARD CHOICES ON EFFECTIVE TRANSIT. The congestion-reduction impact of light rail is underwhelming, particularly considering its cost. Complete the Sea-Tac Airport to Northgate line now under construction and prescribed in the 1996 “Sound Move” vote, while simultaneously developing a transit system on existing infrastructure with corridor-based express buses, more commuter rail and passenger-only ferries. Understand and act upon the need to make the bus-riding and commuting experience more amenable (see #7, below).
  4. MOVE NOW TO ESTABLISH REGIONAL TRANSPORTATION GOVERNANCE. In its “short session” beginning in January 2008, the legislature and Gov. Christine Gregoire must implement the recommendations of the expert study panel – chaired by John Stanton and Norm Rice – that they appointed to evaluate regional transportation governance reform. The Stanton-Rice panel concluded, “there are too many cooks in the kitchen,” too many different agencies and fiefdoms making transportation decisions without sufficient coordination or accountability. They’re right. A regional transportation commission must be established – and soon – to plan, prioritize and fund road and transit projects. The commission must focus on congestion reduction, accountability to voters, plus traditional and innovative means of finance. Consideration should be given to considering a regional transportation district including Kitsap, Thurston, Skagit and Whatcom counties, in addition to King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
  5. BEGIN INTRODUCING SYSTEM-WIDE HIGHWAY TOLLING. The best way to reduce solo car trips during peak hours – the main cause of road congestion – is to gradually introduce system-wide tolling through High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes on major highways in Puget Sound. Current HOV (carpool) lanes should be converted to HOT lanes where cars with three or more passengers can travel free of charge but solo drivers wishing to avoid congested general purpose lanes must pay an electronic toll based on time of day and level of congestion. This will shift a significant proportion of peak-hour solo driver travel to off-peak hours, non-highway routes or transit, thereby keeping congestion in check. Over time, the majority of lanes on major highways in the region should be converted to HOT lanes. HOT lanes should be introduced incrementally on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, S.R. 520, the express lanes of I-5 and I-90, and on 1-405 and S.R. 167.
  6. CHANGE STATE LAW TO BOOST PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS. Public employee unions and pension funds are ready and willing to invest substantially in major road projects. The state would retain control of assets and tolling rates, but state law should be changed to remove stiff barriers to public-private partnerships in transportation. Tolling new highway lanes can ensure that new capacity is used effectively and that transit and carpooling are encouraged.
  7. EMPHASIZE INNOVATIVE DESIGN AND TECHNOLOGY. Drawing on the expertise and insights of regional business leaders such as Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing, we must seek out and implement new design of suburban park-and-rides and buses to enhance the experience and performance, and draw more users. Lightweight buses made of composite materials, offering comfortable interiors and Wi-Fi connections should become the new standard. Park-and-rides fill up early in the morning, indicating their potential for far greater use. With more commercial amenities, a more welcoming built environment, and a broader menu of effective transit options – including private bus service provided by employers – an expanded regional system of park-and-rides can help change the way we commute in Puget Sound and contribute to greenhouse gas reduction. New park-and-rides should include outlets for the 100 miles-per-gallon plug-in hybrid electric vehicles coming to auto showrooms as soon as 2009 or 2010. New or expanded roadway technologies are also crucial to wring more efficiency out of our roads. These include continued regional emphasis on traffic signal coordination, extended green lights and delayed reds for express buses, and alterable signs, signals and roadway markings to change lane configurations and speed limits in response to shifting traffic conditions.
  8. FREIGHT RAIL INVESTMENT AND COMMUTER RAIL EXPANSION. 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 Sounder commuter rail between Everett and Tacoma by freeing up north-south track capacity. For the 42-mile Renton to Snohomish BNSF freight line, we propose low-cost environmentally-friendly commuter rail on existing tracks.