Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Misplaced priorities
Governor Gregoire announced yesterday that the revised tunnel option proposed by Mayor Nickels for the SR 99 corridor is no longer under consideration. She and the DOT gave several reasons, but the bottom line is that the DOT is more concerned with building a highway than with the effect upon the people who live and work in Seattle.

Transportation policy in Seattle continues to be driven--I choose that metaphor carefully--by the need to push as many cars as possible through the state-owned concrete pipelines called highways. While highways aren't going away and we can't ignore the fact that most people still drive to work, it is foolishly shortsighted to continue to prioritize the movement of cars over the movement of people.

The misplacement of priorities can be seen by comparing funding for public transit compared to funding for highway construction. Highways, including ferries (which are legally highways and almost entirely move cars) together collect 86% of state taxes and receive the same percentage of state funding. About 3% of state transportation revenue is federal and affects the general population. The remaining 11% of taxes, taken from general taxes that apply to everyone in the state whether they use state transportation facilities or not, goes to public transit (8%) and heavy rail (3%). Superficially, this might seem fair, until you realize that public transit serves many of the same transportation corridors as state highways, and that every person using transit represents one less person in a car--and on average almost one less car. Car users are receiving the benefits of transit for free.

The situation seems even less fair when you include local transit funding, which collects anywhere from 20% to 40% of its funding directly from transit fares, and none from car or fuel fees. Now, certainly a portion of these fares account for fuel and other operating costs that in the case of cars on highways are borne privately by drivers. But it's by no means proportional, because the typical $1.50 one-way, one-zone Sound Transit fare is roughly comparable to the amount the average commuter spends on gas each way on their commute. Even including privately-borne insurance and maintenance fees for cars, drivers are paying a much smaller proportion of the marginal costs of their commuting than transit users, who split costs among dozens of people per vehicle trip. In effect, cars are being subsidized by transit users.

Looking at state totals bears this out. The 86% of WSDOT revenue that is paid by highway and ferry users totaled a billion dollars in the last biennium. That's $500 million per year divided among more than 4 million drivers. The out-of-pocket cost in taxes for each driver averages $125/year, or less than $3 per week, on top of the private costs of driving.

A transportation model that fairly balanced costs and benefits and used an integrated roads and transit approach designed to move people rather than cars would result in a completely different funding mechanism. General construction and capital costs for all systems would come equally from general funding, since everyone benefits from transportation infrastructure. The combination of roads and transit would favor transit in order to move more people more cost effectively. Revenue for operational costs would come from people in proportion to how much they contributed to those costs.

In practice, this would work out to a system of highway tolls that collected enough revenue from each vehicle to represent the operational costs of that vehicle to the transportation system. In the case of transit vehicles, that cost would be passed on in the form of fares, as it is now. But drivers would have to pay more. This would also create a situation where the cost per transit trip would fall below the toll cost for a private vehicle. It would also enable transportation projects to move forward more quickly, as rises in highway operations and maintenance costs would be reflected immediately in the cost of tolls to cover the difference.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

This is a satellite view of the West Coast of the United States, from Google Maps. It's sometimes useful to look at the region without regard to political borders.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Transportation in Seattle
Part two: What to do about it? Answer: Sound Transit Plus
Previous post

Having established that transporation planning in the Seattle area is broken, the question becomes what to do about it. The danger in proposing solutions is that the crux of the problem is one of the Seattle process. Simply put, democratic government in Seattle is broken, at least when it comes to transportation, with too many people having input and no one having the final authority to make a decision.

I have no problem with public involvement when planning the future. That is the essence of democracy. However, when nobody has the power to make a final decision, the public input just becomes a means for doing nothing--or even worse, for an undemocratic result to arise from a lack of official inaction. If public discussion does not result in public action, that's not democracy, it is the very antithesis of democracy. Any solution that adds more input without assigning responsibility for decisions and actions simply compounds the problem.

The question then becomes how can we organize decision-making responsibilities about transportation in Seattle so that the people who live here can contribute to those decisions without preventing our leaders from making clear decisions and acting upon them. Some basic principles are clear:

  • The Seattle metropolitan region is larger than Seattle, so comprehensive decisions must be regional.
  • The Seattle metropolitan region has completely different transportation needs from the rest of Washington state, so policies that apply statewide will often be inappropriate for the city.
  • Because the Department of Transportation has a statewide mandate, it is not the appropriate agency to make transportation decisions in the Seattle metropolitan region.
  • When two agencies both have decision-making power for the same area, those agencies will fight for their own interests, creating political gridlock. Therefore, only one agency should have decision-making power.
  • The state has an interest in coordinating metro and statewide projects, so any regional agency should include a representative from the state level to help coordinate regional and state projects.
  • The state has already designated Sound Transit as a regional agency for the Seattle metropolitan area. The Sound Transit district includes the urban areas in three counties surrounding Seattle that constitute nearly half of the state's population.
  • Transportation policy is ultimately about moving people and freight, not vehicles. Any effective transportation policy must be technology neutral, and must include all forms of transportation in a corridor as part of a single integrated system designed to move people and freight as quickly as possible.
  • An integrated system is most efficiently run by a single agency. Therefore, all transportation facilities in the Seattle metropolitan area, including all roads and highways that connect two or more towns or cities, should properly be the responsibility of the regional agency.
  • The agency that makes transportation decisions must also be able to make decisions about the revenue that it needs to implement those decisions. Therefore:
  • All state revenue used to support state highways that is currently collected within the metropolitan region must be redirected to the regional agency. Furthermore:
  • The regional agency must have the power to raise new taxes, without the necessity of expensive and resource-draining public referendums.
  • To account for this power of taxation, the governing board of the regional agency must include some directly elected representatives. This provides a way for voters to hold their elected officials responsible for transportation decisions.

Interestingly, Sound Transit is well-situated to take on these additional responsibilities. As an agency, it already includes among its board of directors elected leaders from the cities and councils within the Sound Transit district, as well as state representation in the person of the director of the DOT. It needs only three additional powers before it can fulfill the principles above:

  • Control over state highways within the Sound Transit district.
  • Statutory power to raise taxes.
  • Directly elected members on the board of directors.

I call this proposal "Sound Transit Plus." It's funny that I've come to this conclusion, as I was for many years an opponent of Sound Transit, not because of their goals but because of how they were managed. I was also a supporter of the monorail. But I realize now the real problems with Sound Transit are the same as the larger problems of democracy in Seattle. They were competing with other agencies, did not have final say over transportation in the region, and did not (and still do not have) enough money to put their vision into action. The Seattle Monorail Project, as well-intentioned as it was, was fatally flawed because it used city politics to achieve a regional goal. There was simply no way that good management could come from creating a second city-wide government to do what the city council wouldn't--implement a transit system to solve a larger metropolitan problem.

If Sound Transit had the state highway money that is collected within its district, it suddenly becomes a much more effective agency. It can decide whether that money is best spent on beefing up highways as DOT planned, or better used in some combination with transit. They can decide upon the best use of current revenue--mostly gas taxes, sales taxes, and vehicle taxes--and then determine what still needs to be done.

That's when it needs to use the power of the purse to dramatically change the system. Here's what I would recommend:

  • A system of adaptive congestion tolls on all state highways and major commuting arterials in the Sound Transit district. This system of tolls would have the dual purpose of raising money for road maintenance and transit while also discouraging congestion. This is superior to no tolls, or tolls only on new or selected projects, because it creates market incentives for people to choose transit, carpool or vanpool, choose a less congested (and thus less polluting) route, and forego unnecessary trips. It also prevents people from simply avoiding selected tolls by choosing untolled roads.
  • Possibly an additional congestion charge for people entering the downtown Seattle core, high enough so that bus and rail alternatives are cheaper than the toll alone.
  • Additional user fees on cars, when appropriate.
  • An acceleration of the light rail and commuter rail timeline and scope so that the entire regional system is complete within 15 years, and includes areas not in current planning such as those along the 99 corridor.
  • In the short-term, retrofit the Alaskan Way Viaduct to prevent its fall during a major earthquake. Make changes to mitigate the eventual loss of the viaduct, including light rail transit and freight transit improvements to the east and south (and possibly making some downtown lanes freight-only north of the viaduct). Do not expand Alaskan Way beyond its current four-lane size. Begin redeveloping the waterfront side of the road. Only after all of these steps are taken, consider whether it is possible to remove the viaduct without replacement.

The state would lose a lot of power and money in this deal, and along with skeptical voters it would be one of the greatest obstacles to these changes. But if it could be brought around, this would free it to redefine its mission. It could:

  • Consider encouraging other metro areas in the state to develop their own regional transit agencies. The other areas that might qualify include, in order, Spokane, Clark County, Kitsap County, Yakima, Olympia, Bellingham, and the Tri-Cities. The state could develop a threshold for metropolitan size, and then allow metro counties to opt in if they qualify.
  • Redefine its emphasis to focus on connecting metro regions to each other, and maintaining the current rural highway system, rather than building new highways.
  • Redirect its new construction money that remains to projects connecting metro areas in the state with metro areas of adjacent states and provinces. A major priority would be regional rail, possibly high-speed, connecting Seattle with Vancouver BC, Olympia, Portland, and Spokane. This could be a model for an eventual renewed national network of high-speed rail.

This may not be possible, but it would certainly fix the current problems with the Seattle process. The remaining questions are ones of political feasibility. How do we get there from here? That's an open question that I will likely revisit in future posts.

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Transportation in the Seattle metropolitan area
Part one: Background to political gridlock

Decision-making about transportation in the Seattle metropolitan area is broken. Seattle is seen, mostly rightfully, as a relatively progressive city. Despite this, for decades it has been collectively incapable of making decisions that result in a transit system worthy of the city's reputation and aspirations.

Like many American cities, Seattle ripped up its old streetcar rail lines in the early-to-mid 20th century, convinced that cars had rendered them obsolete. As cars multiplied, Seattle built highways and freeways and more freeways. As early as the 1960s, while this freeway boom was still at its height (it is still ongoing), some people began to ask if there were better ways to move people. Several attempts were made to build commuter and light rail systems in the city, but all efforts failed until the state created a "Regional Transportation Authority" in the early 1990s, which created a regional agency with authority in the urban areas of the three counties making up the larger Seattle metropolitan area--and nearly half of the state's population. The agency's "Sound Move" plan was approved by voters in the district in the 1996 general election, and Sound Transit was born.

Sound Transit's plan expanded bus service, but also began building regional commuter rail and light rail lines. The early years of the agency were marked by mismanagement and cost-overruns. The voters approved a 25-mile light-rail line that would stretch from Seattle-Tacoma airport to the Northgate Mall north of downtown by 2006, but that was pared down to a 14-mile line running from downtown to almost two miles short of the airport, a few years later. By the turn of the century, even many progressives had soured on Sound Transit, seeing an expensive system that didn't even get people out of Seattle proper, much less throughout the region.

Partly in response to the early failures of Sound Transit, voters within the city of Seattle launched a multi-year grassroots initiative to build a monorail system within the city limits. The vision began with a citywide system that would in part duplicate Sound Transit's plan, but the original thinking was that Sound Transit was so mired in the notorious "Seattle process" that it might never get built. As the monorail plan moved forward, it became clear that Sound Transit would build its truncated line, and studies showed that the corridor most overlooked by Sound Transit and most likely to benefit from a monorail was on the west side of the city, connecting the West Seattle neighborhood on the other side of Elliott Bay from Downtown, to Downtown, and then to the Ballard neighborhood in north Seattle on the other side of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. This was the "Green Line" monorail proposal that was passed by the voters.

Unfortunately for the monorail, the funding attached to the Green Line proposal ended up 30% short of estimates. This eventually led to the demise of the plans for the monorail, after a complicated episode involving a flip-flop by Mayor Greg Nickels and an anti-monorail campaign that dishonestly used the full multi-decade financing costs of the monorail in future dollars to make it seem as expensive as possible.

Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Transportation was planning more state highways. Despite its name, the WSDOT is really a highway-building agency. It funds no mass transit projects. It controls several highways in the Seattle metro area, the two largest of which are SR-520 and SR-99. 520 is one of two cross-lake corridors that connects Seattle to Bellevue and other Eastside suburbs. The other corridor is served by Interstate 90. The 520 floating bridge and most of the highway that supports it was completed in the 1960s, and is now seriously past its prime. Similarly, the 99 corridor, once part of old US Highway 99 running from Canada to Mexico in the days before Interstate 5, is in serious disrepair. In downtown Seattle, the central portion runs on a raised highway--the Alaskan Way Viaduct--built in the 1950s for a much smaller volume of traffic than it now supports, which was significantly damaged in the 2001 earthquake. The state has drawn up multi-billion dollar plans to rebuild both highways, expanding capacity and bringing them up to current seismic and safety standards.

This is where the political mess begins. The political leaders of the city want to tear down the viaduct, put in a super-expensive tunnel, and "reconnect" the business district with the watefront where the viaduct set them apart. While the viaduct is a relatively short segment, it covers extremely valuable real estate that would be redeveloped if the viaduct came down--think huge dollars for downtown developers and real estate investors. The state was initially on board with the city, because the tunnel was a huge expensive freeway project that would fit within their highway-building mandate. The DOT put together several options for the corridor, ranging from a retrofit to a rebuild to a tunnel. It eventually narrowed down its options to tunnel or rebuild, initially pushing more strongly for the tunnel. However, as the true costs of the tunnel became clear--we're talking Big Dig territory in terms of money and disruption to the city, and involving rebuilding a seawall that keeps Elliott Bay away from the low-lying parts of downtown--the tunnel ran into huge resistance.

The opponents of the tunnel were in a few camps. Some suggested a rebuild would be cheaper, but that threatened the plans of the Mayor and his downtown supporters to redevelop the waterfront. Others suggested a retrofit of the current bridge, which also threatened the Mayor's redevelopment plan and left a 50-year old highway in place. Still others, wanting to move the city away from its reliance on cars, suggested tearing the viaduct down and reconnecting city streets, and using the money saved for parks and ecological restoration on Elliott Bay. This last position eventually became known as "Surface Plus Transit." The transit was originally going to be the monorail Green Line and possibly increased bus service to that line.

When the monorail was finally rejected in November 2005, the situation with the viaduct became even more complicated. Without transit along the corridor, pressure to rebuild the highway grew. But it also became clear that federal and state money to support the project would not be forthcoming, not at the newly inflated estimates for the tunnel. It would even be difficult to raise money for the rebuild. With the pool of available financing shrinking, and with plans to replace 520 gaining steam, the various factions became more intractable. The Mayor kept pushing for the tunnel, while the state (both the DOT and the Legislature) started backing away and pushing for the rebuild. The problem is that neither the state nor the city has final authority for the project. The city has the ability to block permits for construction, and the state has the highway funding. The political stalemate came to a head when Governor Gregoire told Seattle local officials that if they did not choose between the options, she would choose for them, and her choice was the rebuild. Within a couple of weeks, Gregoire backed off a bit and said that the city had the option of choosing one or the other, and that if they did not choose, she would use the money for 520 instead, leaving an earthquake-weakened structure intact and the nearby seawall that was also old and damaged and in danger of collapsing in any future earthquakes.

The city council responded by calling for a spring election with two non-binding votes on the rebuild and tunnel options. The surface plus transit folks were ignored. So now we have a huge standoff between Democratic politicians at the local and state level, and everyone else so upset that pressure is growing for a "No-No" vote in the advisory elections. If this happens, it's likely that the state will take the money originally set aside for the viaduct and use it for 520, and the city will be left with an aging highway and no redevelopment of the waterfront. This standoff has led to continued city-state negotiations, but it's likely that nothing will be decided before the advisory elections, if ever.

Meanwhile, Sound Transit has finally gotten its act together somewhat, and is building light rail. The existing bus tunnel is being retrofitted for rail, and rails are being laid throughout the line. The first portion of the line is scheduled for completion by summer 2009, from downtown to 1.7 miles short of the airport. The connection to the airport will follow by the end of 2009, and is already under construction. An expansion to the original planned northern termimus at Northgate Mall has been set aside, but Sound Transit is well on the way to securing federal funding for an expansion to the University of Washington by 2016. They have also conducted voter surveys and initial planning for an expansion of the line post-2016 to the suburban Eastside (passing through downtown Bellevue and terminating near Microsoft headquarters), and northward past the original planned terminus at Northgate, all the way to the suburb of Lynnwood. That proposal will be put to the ballot soon, and is likely to pass. They've also built and planned for expansion for a smaller light-rail line in Tacoma and supplementary commuter rail from Everett to south of Tacoma.

But here's the downside. 2016? For a line that doesn't even match the original plan for 2006? For a system that doesn't reach the suburbs until 2030? For a system that doesn't connect any of Seattle's west-side neighborhoods, those connected to downtown through the viaduct route? It's a disaster and an embarrassment. Transportation in the Seattle metropolitan area is broken, and residents of the area need to do something dramatic to change it, now. I'll describe some of my ideas about what should be done in upcoming posts.

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