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Congestion conjecture: Eyman’s I-985

Highway 520.

Highway 520 in Bellevue at evening rush hour. Credit: WSDOT

Washington members of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) voted Wednesday to oppose I-985. “The best professional judgment of these engineers is that I-985 contains significant flaws that will likely, on net, increase congestion and possibly impact safety on the roads and highways of metropolitan Puget Sound,” the ITE reported Tuesday on its Web site.

The ITE is most concerned with I-985’s mandated hours and rules for carpool lanes, which the society said could result in increased accidents, slower emergency response, poorer transit service, and even increased drive-alone trips.

Engineers expressed concerns with other aspects of I-985:

(1) inflexible rules for traffic signal synchronization that fail to allow local jurisdictions to manage traffic signals based on local needs; (2) a reduction in funding sources for red-light cameras, which could undermine safety at high-collision intersections and school zones; and (3) significant public outlays for capital equipment and management changes that yield no tangible benefits for road performance.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) staff also raises alarms over the way I-985 sets carpool lane regulations into law, preventing transportation planners from reacting to changed traffic patterns and also costing the region an estimated $20 million in federal highway funds because of reduction in carpool-lane hours.

The carpool lanes could operate only from 6-9 a.m. and 3-6 p.m., and the report notes that in several locations the rush hour already exceeds those hours. The restrictions would also govern beyond I-5 and I-405, and include half a dozen other carpool-lane locations as well as the westbound lanes on the 520 bridge approach, which currently requires three occupants. The westbound carpool lane, a converted shoulder, is not designed to handle the added traffic if I-985’s two-occupant rule went into effect, the report notes.

The so-called “Reduce Traffic Congestion” initiative, the latest product by initiative entrepreneur Tim Eyman, got off to a strong start, as initiatives do when they contain an attractive title. But as information began to dribble out to counter Eyman’s claims, the measure began to falter. The Elway Poll’s July survey showed it with a 58-28 margin with 14 percent undecided; by September it was down to 51-29 with 20 percent undecided. Perhaps significantly, support was highest in the Puget Sound region, home to the worst traffic congestion but also where media attention has only recently begun to focus on the initiative.

As voters receive their Voters’ Pamphlets, they will also face for the first time the dollar costs and shifting of funds under I-985.

The state’s fiscal impact statement, in the Voters’ Pamphlet, estimates that in five years, $622 million would be shifted from various state and local transportation funds into a new Reduce Traffic Congestion Account. Approximately half would go for items specified in I-985, primarily to change high-occupancy traffic lanes in the Puget Sound area. The rest could be spent on “reducing traffic congestion,” except it could not be used for mass transit, which remains the major alternative to highways for most commuters.

Since most of the revenue ($573 million) is from sales-and-use taxes on motor vehicles, collected statewide, and most of the congestion expenditures would be in the Puget Sound area, the Eyman initiative would seem to drain tax revenues from the rest of the state for use in the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma corridor.

The major expenditure, an estimated $224 million over five years, would be to open carpool lanes to all vehicles in off-peak hours, largely a Seattle-area item that is not even mentioned, let alone supported, in Brian Sonntag’s traffic congestion audit of 2007, which Eyman clings to at every turn.

In fact, a comprehensive reading of Sonntag’s audit (pdf) and Eyman’s I-985 reveals that the two are not even kissing cousins, let alone identical twins. Eyman claims in numerous forums to be doing the work Sonntag outlined, because “Olympia” won’t pay attention. But most solutions Eyman proposes in I-985 don’t match those in Sonntag’s audit and actually oppose or checkmate the audit in several places.

Sonntag’s audit calls for 22 actions. Four are policy recommendations to the Legislature and are not mentioned in I-985. The other 18 are aimed at the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), but seven are generic recommendations (Items 1-2, 5-8, and 16 in the audit) that WSDOT put congestion at the top of its priority list. Okay, we get the point.

Of the remaining 11 recommendations to WSDOT, only synchronized traffic lights and improved accident-response times appear in both the Eyman initiative and the audit. Synchronization is well underway in the Puget Sound region, without the benefit of I-895; the primary accident-response problem is shortage and training of state troopers, not a policy shortfall.

Examining the other impacts of I-985, using the state’s Voter’s Pamphlet as the source, one can compare the initiative with the audit.

“The measure would open all carpool lanes during non-peak hours for use by all traffic … ‘peak hours’ (would be defined as) between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. and the hours between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.” The audit does not recommend either a statutory definition of “peak hours” or the opening of HOV lanes in non-peak times. It does recommend completing the HOV system from Seattle to Tacoma; I-985 makes no mention.

Revenues from fines collected by cities or counties for violations caught by traffic cameras would be diverted from local government to the Traffic Congestion Fund created by the initiative, and spent on projects included in the initiative. The audit makes no mention of the cameras nor does it suggest diverting the funds, some $39.8 million in five years diverted from local to state budgets.

Section 15, which deals with tolls, is perhaps the most ambiguous item in I-985. Although initiative backers claim it would prevent tolling both 520 and I-90 bridges to build a new 520 bridge, the measure does not refer to either bridge by name. Although Section 15’s title includes the wording, “Tolls on a project get spent on the project,” it is unclear how it would operate, and the section’s meaning would likely be decided in court, if the Legislature were to opt for a two-bridge toll to speed up construction and avoid a traffic shift from 520 to I-90.

Beyond the catchy language and populist rhetoric, I-985 makes a lot of changes, most of which won’t be apparent until and unless voters roll the dice in November. It certainly has caught the attention of regional transportation planners; look for those concerns to increasingly surface in the weeks ahead.

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