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Let’s rise — just for a moment — above the gruesome gruel of the regular transportation conversation. Forget the war on cars and bikes, where to put streetcars, how to finish the new SR 520 bridge and how much more money to spend on light rail. Instead, consider this:
What are the five biggest transportation challenges facing the Puget Sound region and Washington state?
It’s a good exercise, liberating from tired thinking and sobering as a judgment of our long-term progress. Here are my picks.
Challenge #1: We must reduce transportation’s dependence on fossil fuel, and especially oil and especially imported oil. This is the fundamental sustainability issue in transportation: Oil’s cost is killing us. It drains our personal, communal and national treasure, to say nothing of driving us in strange directions on domestic and foreign policy. Directly meeting the fossil fuel reduction challenge would move the needle on a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions too, even if we in Washington are relatively small contributors as compared to others.
How can it be done? Vastly higher fuel efficiency in some vehicles, electrification in others and private consumer choices driven by market forces — higher oil prices and real or contrived scarcity. Not to mention a national policy and investment tilt toward freight rail and seizing a host of opportunities intermingled with the next, second, challenge.
Challenge #2: We must use existing transportation assets more efficiently. We can do much more of transportation’s task with what we have. We just need to demand more attention to operations efficiencies: smoother traffic flow, more reliable travel times and laser focus on speed and transit reliability improvements. We need to step up to serious stewardship of our transportation system through adequate maintenance and preservation of our huge — and woefully neglected — existing transportation infrastructure.
At the very center of the efficiency challenge is a simple solution: Real-time variable pricing — tolls on constrained capacity freeways that go up at times of high demand. This is not just a play for more revenue. Better use of the system by market allocation of roadway — transportation bandwidth, if you will — has a much larger payback.
A highway lane kept free-flowing by variable tolling achieves startling efficiency, moving twice as many cars in an hour as a jammed “freeway.” Free flowing roadway corridors also assure fast, reliable, customer-attracting transit service. That is, as opposed to the endless waiting and incredible cost of creating altogether new transit alignments. With modern roadway pricing, we can unlock huge capacity gains from investments we have already made in our roads and infrastructure. It must be the key outcome of the tolling discussion.
Challenge #3: We must change the way we fund transportation services and facilities. The gas tax cannot be the dominant pillar of public transportation finance. This is true for a host of reasons, including the necessity of reducing fossil fuel use (See Challenge #1, above). Existing custom, broad public acceptance and the appealing administrative simplicity of gas taxes have all been huge barriers to change.
Re-thinking probably has to start from viewing roads, highways and transit systems as utilities, like water, sewer, gas and electric systems. We will have to adapt the best models of utility funding — an area fraught with its own problems — to the transportation arena. Higher reliance on users pay principles and more scrutiny and insistence on economic measures and our return on investment will have to become more prominent.
Challenge #4: We must fix the regional transportation planning, decision structures and processes for our state. We seem to have more unconnected silos for transportation management and decision-making than the Palouse has silos for wheat. The legislature, a governor, city and county executives and councils, ports, Sound Transit, the Puget Sound Regional Council, a bushelful of DOTs and a basket-load of commissions and boards are all pushing disjointed spending and infrastructure agendas. These frustrate cohesive, balanced approaches to regional and statewide transportation futures.
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