Regional Transport: Much Can Be Done Right Now

Original Article

All around Puget Sound — in corporate boardrooms, environmental caucuses, labor halls and neighborhood coffeehouses — people are wondering about the future of transportation following the resounding thumping the Proposition 1 roads-and-transit ballot measure took on Nov. 6.

As an independent transportation think tank, we’ve spent the year bringing new ideas on regional transportation to Puget Sound Business Journal readers on this page. We believe that any new plan must be based on innovation in finance and technology, and liberally sprinkled with accountability and leadership.

Officials are beginning to deliberate next steps, but there is much we can do today to relieve traffic congestion and improve our transportation corridors while cutting dependence on foreign oil and reducing greenhouse gases from transportation. Given how much we can do now, it was striking how long it would have taken to complete many of the projects on the defeated Roads and Transit ballot.


Tolling on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was initially opposed by many. Now, armed with “Good to Go” transponders, motorists are saving hours on their commute and paying just $1.75 per trip. Using the same technology, we can toll the State Route 520 bridge, starting in 2009. It must be replaced before a heavy windstorm destroys it or a sudden earthquake sweeps it and motorists into Lake Washington, a scenario the state Transportation Department has graphically depicted in a YouTube video simulation. The tab will be at least $4.4 billion, with nearly half unfunded. Tolling can help close the gap.

Let’s also toll the reversible lanes of I-90 to subsidize the 520 rebuild, with some revenues used for continued expansion of bus rapid transit to the Eastside. Then add a toll to the reversible lanes of Interstate 5 to help finance the reconstruction of the corridor from Northgate to downtown, and make one of the express lanes a contra-flow lane. This would tame one of the region’s worst bottlenecks, caused when the I-5 express lanes are reversed, by allowing for 24-hour bi-directional travel. (Again, dedicate a small part of the tolls for expansion of bus rapid transit.)

The earthquake-prone Alaskan Way Viaduct on State Route 99 in downtown Seattle is a vital, high-capacity road that also must be replaced. The best solution is a deep-bored, inland tunnel bypass, financed through tolling and private investment. Part of the tolls could be dedicated to surface transit enhancements along the waterfront.

Regional tolling needs to include more high occupancy-and-toll (HOT) lanes, allowing solo drivers to use carpool/transit lanes for a premium. HOT lanes should charge variable electronic tolls, based on current traffic levels; this is called “congestion pricing.” We need to extend the new HOT lane on State Route 167 through the entire length of Interstate 405 and twin it with the existing HOV lane so that motorists have a choice of taking a free lane or a fee lane.

Private investment

Tolling isn’t the only innovative transportation finance tool available to decision-makers. Politically feasible partnerships can be forged with the pension funds of building trade unions, public employees and others to help finance key projects. Government can maintain control of the assets and the tolling rates or transit fares. A mix of public and private financing has been successful elsewhere in the Cascadia region.

In British Columbia, private investors have played a key role in funding the Canada Line rapid transit rail tunnel from Vancouver’s waterfront to the airport, the Sea-to-Sky highway, and the Portman and Golden Ears bridge projects. The risks of construction overruns are shared and the projects are on track to finish before the 2010 Olympics. In Portland, Ore., expansion of light rail to the airport was completed with private capital, in return for development rights along the corridor.

Locally, one-half of the capital costs of the South Lake Union streetcar were paid through a local improvement district composed of private property owners. The proposed Eastside commuter rail line — paralleling the planned recreational trail from Renton to Snohomish — could benefit from joint funding with developers for stations and track improvements. Other candidates for private-sector partnerships are an expanded network of upgraded Park-and-Ride lots, the Colman Dock ferry terminal downtown, regional passenger-only ferries, and more employer-sponsored buses like the comfortable, wired Microsoft Connector fleet.

Clean car technology

Financial innovation in regional transportation is not enough; technology also is key. Our country’s dependence on foreign oil is a threat to our national security, and the continued use of fossil fuels is a major cause of greenhouse gases. Clean vehicle technology is the answer. Too much of our public policy demonizes the vehicle.

Governments can lead the way in testing plug-in hybrid and bio-fueled vehicles, as are the city of Seattle, King County and the Port of Seattle. The hope is that after performance data are evaluated, major government fleet purchases of flexible fuel, plug-in electric hybrid vehicles will follow — helping prompt car manufacturers to boost production for a consumer market eager to sidestep pricey fossil fuel. Facilities like park-and-ride lots, safety rest areas and truck stops can be electrified.

Other technological advances are at hand. Let’s synchronize traffic lights on all arterials around Puget Sound, now. Technology exists today for a “master control” of all the various municipalities that control their lights; we can harmonize them for faster, safer travel with less idling and less air pollution.

Regional decision-making

Currently, there are 128 governments or agencies with a say in central Puget Sound transportation. To handle a sophisticated transportation system you need a new, single point of accountability. John Stanton, wireless industry leader, and former Seattle mayor Norm Rice are heading an independent civic effort based on their previous report that recommended to the Legislature and governor a single regional decision-making body for central Puget Sound. The new regional transportation board could have the power to consolidate agencies, prioritize projects, engage in partnerships and establish performance criteria for our travel corridor investments. Results should be measured in congestion relief and operating efficiencies that move more people through — not just cars.

Under such a scenario, districts could be drawn east to west, to break down the usual split of Seattle versus suburban blocs.

Time for a new approach

Businesses, residents and visitors all have a stake in a smoothly operating transportation system. Central Puget Sound’s population is projected to grow 52 percent by 2040. We can’t build our way out of road congestion, but we can manage what we have — and what we add — much more strategically.

Tolling and congestion pricing, pension fund investment, improved bus rapid transit plus Eastside commuter rail, advanced vehicle and traffic technology, and regional decision-making. Each is essential.

The Pacific Northwest rightly prides itself on balancing its abundant natural beauty with robust economic growth. Meeting the challenge will become harder each year. How we plan for future regional mobility, and what kind of leadership we can summon, will help determine whether we succeed.

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.