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Citizens, at least a lot of them, are frustrated and angry and don’t need to be patronized with buzzwords like “transparency” to know that they’re not getting any. Even when projects are delivered as promised, and a lot have been, many citizens have become too cynical to believe it.
Tim Eyman, uninvited to the viaduct celebration, must have been in Mukilteo watching the news and rubbing his hands in glee at the viaduct tunnel consensus photo op. The much-decried interference of the initiative process is probably propelled more by disillusion about the fragmented and unaccountable way we do business than from a true fervor of anti-tax ideology.
So what should we do? In pursuit of plain speaking, common sense, and more just outcomes, let me offer two immediate conditions of a useful regional transportation plan.
First, people who use and benefit from the transportation system should pay for the transportation system. That’s not the same as saying, however, that every individual needs to pay only for the road he or she drives on. It’s the cost and the value of the entire regional transportation system and service that need to be fairly toted up and paid for by its users.
The state gas tax, long-shared between state and local needs (a little understood fact), used to be a good rough justice way of setting up the connection with many users, while sales and excise taxes helped on the public transportation side. But modern transportation finance has to be re-aligned with lowering, not increasing, fossil fuel consumption. And roads and transit are no longer separate systems but linked parts of overall approaches to getting people around.
Around the country and around the world, transportation finance is moving to tolls. Some areas keep the tolls in the public sector; some are making more use of the private sector. But a good toll system, like a good transportation system itself, is not a piecemeal system. It also must look at the big system-wide picture, not just project-by project. In our case we should be looking to the region as a whole to identify the right parts of the entire system to toll, so that users of the entire system will contribute to its modernization and the investments will be made with a regional view of how to make the entire system, not just isolated parts of it, work better.
If we drag our feet on regional tolling now and instead set up old-fashioned, piecemeal, project-by-project tolls, they will quickly reveal their obsolescence and inadequacy. We would then have to undo what we will have done and then start over while we watch other parts of the country get it right the first time. One region that is getting it right is the Bay Area Toll Authority in the San Francisco Bay region, which is drawing on all the revenue power of the area’s big bridges to create a unified transportation financial vision.
It’s time to get the lead out of our shoes and parochial thinking out of our brains. We, too, could be leaders in the quest of sense, justice, and efficiency in our transportation funding arrangements. The first big step toward this is to take the bold steps toward a region-based tolling approach.
The second immediate condition for a rational approach is closely related to the first. New tolling technology also opens the door to all kinds of important opportunities for technology and innovation in the way our transportation system works. We need buses, cars, computers and communication, information and safety systems to start working together. For starters, collect vehicle tolls automatically and electronically as demonstrated on the new Narrows Bridge. And collect bus fares from riders carrying a chip in their iPod or cell phone for the automatic debiting of their trips costs as conveniently as they pay for music downloads.
But we can use information technology to do more than expediting toll and fare collections. In a technology-rich transportation environment, computers can set variable tolls to encourage people to drive when and where roads are less crowded, and where traffic is moving freely. Computers can direct truck deliveries to save fuel, time, traffic congestion, and road wear. Computers can make costs for vehicle insurance more equitable by charging on the basis of when and where the miles are driven. Computers can alert drivers to road hazards, snow squalls, and construction delays, and tell bus passengers exactly when the next bus will be at the corner of their street. Computers can announce when the next bus to a commuter's specific destination is pulling out of their nearest home park-and ride facility — where they leave the car during the day for its electric re-charge.
For lack of a bold regional leap into technology, we are also missing the chance to make older parts of our transportation system more efficient and productive, which is exactly the first and best way to make investments in the system help pay for themselves. That’s good for people and it’s good for our regional economy.
It’s way past time for a change in how we are getting the transportation job done in the Puget Sound region. Citizen and voters are desperate for a new regional approach, and it’s high time they got it. Politicians in Olympia and in every local jurisdiction in the region should see the light and get on the program.
One final note, saluting the crowning irony of the tunnel-for-viaduct announcement. Good work, Dino Rossi. The tunnel in his campaign transportation platform is now the plan. And the liberals are taking the heat for imposing the new taxes to make it work. They named Boston’s Big Dig tunnel for Ted Williams. Maybe someday here we’ll actually build Seattle’s waterfront tunnel and everyone will decide to name it for Dino.
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