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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4 Comments:

Anonymous Benjamin said...

If this had more intelligent journalists and citizens like the author of this blog, we wouldn't be in the mess we find ourselves in. The vision of an integrated, multi-modal transportation system has been lacking for many years now. On problem, in my view, has been the fight over roads vs. transit. This last election finally put the nail on that coffin, as the last handful of suburban light rail opponents were replace by pro-rail legislators. And it wasn't just about party affiliation - Fred Jarret, a Republican, was able to keep his seat because of his support for multi-modal solutions.

Unfortunately, there is a terribly misguided effort underway to re-make the transportation governance structure in Pugetopolis. In contrast to the vision Cas lays out, the PSRTC recommendations call for the elimination of Sound Transit. They want to replace a locally-appointed board with an elected board, which would also have members appointed by the GOVERNOR.

All this would do is bring back the old roads vs. transit fights - which the roads-bus folks still hope to win. It's no wonder the only support for this proposal comes from the pavememnt lobby: http://www.globaltelematics.com/pitf/reform.htm

I look forward to reading more of this author's thoughts in future postings.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Benjamin said...

website address was cut off. Should be /pitf

11:04 AM  
Anonymous Benjamin said...

Well, I am obviously having problems posting on this blog today. I meant to comment on the Transportation in Seattle Pt. 2 thread.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Cas said...

Benjamin, thanks for your comments.

I think suburbanites around here--I'm currently one of them, by the way--are waking up to the realities here. There's still a large constituency for building road capacity, but with a little leadership I think we could make some progress and begin fixing things.

3:40 PM  

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