Start with the transportation facts of life. Population in the four counties of Central Puget Sound will have grown from the 2008 total of 3.6 million by another 1.4 million in 2040. Jobs will increase by 1.1 million, and — based on the region's collective proclivities to date — total vehicle miles travelled (VMT) by more than 40 percent.
Barring some big paradigm shift, the percentage of daily "passenger" work trips which occur on transit will grow from 8 percent of the current (2006) total to only 9 percent in 2040. For far more numerous non-work passenger trips, the transit market share stays at a scant 2 percent between 2006 and 2040, according to recent modeling. The vast majority of daily passenger trips occur in cars now and then. For work it's more than four of five, for non-work, about nine of ten. (The rest are split between transit, walking, and biking.) On the upside, there's a lot more ride-sharing for non-work trips; plus, per-capita VMT will continue to stay flat; and we can shave a bit off the expected growth in total VMT by meeting (elusive) regional growth strategy targets.
These are some of the sobering conclusions in a March 2009 background paper that's part of the Puget Sound Regional Council's "Transportation 2040" planning effort. Future projections may change slightly under new computer modeling in a draft environmental impact statement due out at month's end. But you get the idea.
The PSRC's 2040 picture begs a huge question: What to do about it all? And, as we'll see in a moment, it turns out that the state Legislature has some bold ideas of its own.
My own take: A comprehensive approach to managing peak-hour highway capacity in Central Puget Sound should be launched by bravely establishing — and soon — a seamless regional system of variably-priced, automated, and ultimately corridor-length tolling on highways and major state routes. This must be folded into a broader plan to develop stable long-term funding for the region's surface transportation network.
Automated, booth-less tolling with rates varying by demand levels is sometimes referred to as "value pricing." Under value pricing, if demand is higher during rush or "peak" hours (and it almost always is), so are rates; conversely, both tend to be lower, off-peak. This approach can be limited to a facility, such as the State Route 520 bridge, or the planned inland deep-bored tunnel on SR 99 in downtown Seattle. But value pricing can also be applied more sweepingly, in all lanes of an urban region highway corridor; or in some lanes, such as High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes. We need a network of value-priced highways, or lanes on highways, that connect with each other across the metro region. Otherwise, their value to users won't be anywhere near optimal.
HOT lanes are free to transit and ride-sharers and — this is key — also available to solo drivers for a variable toll based on current congestion levels in the HOT lanes. HOT lanes may be built anew or can be converted from pre-existing High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) or carpool lanes. Their guaranteed swift travel times can not only benefit motorists, but pair well with beefed-up suburb-to-suburb express bus service, assuming traffic bottlenecks are fully erased on the bus routes. On State Route 167, south of Seattle, one HOT lane is in operation on each side of the highway on a sizable stretch of the road, in a four-year pilot project. It's a good start on the concept.
A one-size-fits-all approach to value pricing is not necessarily wise here, not yet. HOT lanes work best on heavily-used highways where solo drivers would actually want to pay for the express lane option. On less congested and incomplete highways that nonetheless require tolling revenues to be built out (think Washington's State Route 509, for instance), tolling all lanes using value pricing may make more sense than HOT lanes; who would pay for tolled express lanes they don't really need, when there's a free-flowing free option a lane or two over? If a facility over time becomes congested, then all-lanes-tolled can perhaps give way to a mix of HOT lanes and free lanes.
HOT lanes and other types of value-priced lanes are already in operation around the country and more are planned. Yet as always, it's California that's ahead of the curve. San Diego is already a leader in highway value pricing; and in the Bay Area, what's really on fire is a proposal for a full 800-mile seamless HOT lane highway system, now being advanced as AB 744 by Alberto Torrico, the Assembly Majority Leader. It's likely to pass before long, if not this year. The HOT lanes approach suits the jammed highways of the nine-county region, population 7.3 million. Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, a Democrat, is enthused about the prospects for improved mobility, including express bus service.
For Pugetopolis, the "pay to play" guaranteed relief of HOT lanes on congested highways can help us recalibrate when and how often we drive alone. You say you're a peak-hour solo driver and you want to arrive at your destination by a time certain? Fine, but it'll cost you. You want to avoid the higher rates of HOT lanes? Also fine, but you may have to travel off-peak, carpool, take transit or tele-commute. Or take the non-tolled general-use lanes next to the HOT lanes, which may experience significant congestion. Maybe you can afford to be late. Or maybe you can't, which is why, surveys have repeatedly shown, motorists of all income levels are glad to have HOT lanes at their disposal.
This concept is about transportation finance as well as busting congestion. Any attempt to fully modernize our poorly designed, stunted highway system will require the money raised under some sort of comprehensive regional tolling strategy, plus other funding sources including a local option motor vehicle excise tax and public-private partnerships. The public conversation on tolling in Puget Sound isn't down to the real nitty-gritty yet, but it is moving forward.
Recent transportation decisions in Olympia included approval of a deep-bored, likely-tolled inland bypass tunnel to replace the tottering blight of the Alaskan Way Viaduct on State Route 99 in Seattle, and early tolling on the State Route 520 bridge to help fund its crucial replacement for safety reasons. On the old 520 bridge, from 2010 until the new bridge's construction, both lanes in each direction will be tolled; rates may or may not vary between single-occupant and multiple-occupant vehicles, but will vary by time of day. As of now, it'll be the same on the new bridge, but that structure will also have a third lane in each direction to provide free passage for transit and ride-sharers. Perhaps one day those third lanes on each side will carry solo motorists too, for a premium, as with HOT lanes.
And after a study is done next year, the SR 99 tunnel is likely to be automatically tolled when constructed, as Governor Chris Gregoire has stated. It will be two lanes in each direction, with rates that would probably vary by at least time of day. As with the SR 520 bridge, ride-sharers may be able to get a discount, but that's yet to be decided.
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