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The 5 biggest roadblocks to great WA transportation

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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 wheatThe 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.

Silo-centered loyalties, affections and biases tend to run to modes of transportation delivery (rail cars, automobiles, buses ferries, bicycles), not functions of the transportation task (getting many someones or somethings from Ballard to Capitol Hill, for example). Silo-centered decision-making also fatally discourages broad public discourse on transportation programs and investments. The silos themselves harbor the most entrenched resistance to better governance — an immensely difficult political problem.

At a minimum, we should be insisting on measured accountability from managers and politicians in these silos. Particularly as it relates to the performance of our transportation system as a whole. Eventually, this should help force better-integrated, more rational and cost-effective prioritization of investment and program delivery.   

Challenge #5: We must embrace transformation through technology. This overlays every transportation challenge, including all of the four just stated. Technology has allowed for the reinvention of the automobile, with profound implications for energy, natural resource and land use. Car sharing is here. Bike sharing is here. Parking karma is no longer just a chance spot in front of your destination; it's an engineered online partnership between drivers and available parking spaces.

The next stage is Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control — cars that talk to each other to maintain safe vehicle-to-vehicle cruising distances and smooth traffic flow on the road. A huge step forward in safety and roadway efficiency, this new technology is already in testing to roll out in showrooms soon. Japan and China will push the technology frontier if we lag and we will buy from others what we should and can build for ourselves. Paul Krugman declared in the New York Times that the driverless car is “starting to look like the real thing” and “could really change the whole way we live.” Well, has he ever been wrong? 

Bus information technology has already changed how we use transit and even what we consider transit, as we see the spread of vanpooling, to say nothing of the Microsoft Connector and its imitators. GPS, data analytics and the Internet have transformed supply chain logistics for freight — and for people — from a world-leading firm, Inrix, right in our own back yard.

The ways that technology and information systems are transforming other aspects of our lives are amazing. So, why do we remain captive to old thinking about transportation?

Forget nostalgic “visioning” on behalf of old streetcar systems, the flogging of ferry managers and the debate of outmoded and impractical piecemeal tolling notions. Don't argue over big highway capacity projects with 1990s planning visions or look to other cities and countries — everywhere but to our own unique neighborhoods and geography — for the only transit prescription that will be “world class” to lay down in Seattle.

Maybe re-focusing on the big challenges — your version, or mine — could freshen and enliven our transportation conversation.

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