Why fix dangerous bridges when you can build new pet projects?

In the aftermath of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, it's apparent that local politicians would rather earmark dollars for sexy new transit lines and highways than stick to basics. Seattle's coming roads-and-transit vote is a classic illustration of this pattern.
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Projects on the November ballot in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. (Regional Transportation Improvement District)

In the aftermath of the Minneapolis bridge collapse, it's apparent that local politicians would rather earmark dollars for sexy new transit lines and highways than stick to basics. Seattle's coming roads-and-transit vote is a classic illustration of this pattern.

A front page New York Times article of Aug. 7, which appeared shortly after the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, is pertinent to Proposition 1, metro Puget Sound's November roads-and-transit vote: "Despite historic highs in transportation spending, the political muscle of lawmakers, rather than dire need, has typically driven where much of the money [for inrastructure] goes. That has often meant construction of new, politically popular roads and transit projects rather than the mundane work of maintaining the worn-out ones." One of the diversions of money, the article adds, has been "a boom in rail construction that, while politically popular, has resulted in expensive transit systems that are not used by a vast majority of American commuters."

A similar point, but one aimed at the Minneapolis story, was made by Joel Kotkin in an Aug. 28 Wall Street Journal essay: "Government officials in Minneapolis spent mightily on a light-rail system that last year averaged barely 30,000 boardings daily. It did not focus nearly as much on overstressed highway bridges, or the bus systems serving the bulk of its mostly poor and minority transit riders. Most other light-rail systems, built in cities with highly dispersed employment, also have minuscule ridership, but consume a disproportionate share of transit funds that might go to more cost-efficient systems, including bus-based rapid transit."

Is Seattle an example of such misplaced priorities? Let's look first at the roads-and-bridges component of the big Proposition 1 package we'll be voting on. While advocates for the program were quick to say that the Minneapolis bridge disaster proves the importance of passing the roads-and-transit package, the lesson of Minneapolis is to be more skeptical of the components of such packages, forged as they are out of many political interests and compromises.

Clearly, the Seattle region's transportation infrastructure is wearing out, and it's not well-maintained. The Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club, which opposes Proposition 1, notes that there are 34 bridges in the central Puget Sound region with federal safety ratings of less than 25 on a 0-100 scale. They each serve more than 1,000 daily trips; combined, they serve 440,000. The bridge in Minneapolis had a safety rating of 50. The Alaskan Way Viaduct stands at 9. The existing Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington is rated at 45. During the Initiative 912 effort to rescind a new 9.5-cent gas tax in 2005, the pro-tax side warned that the "520 Bridge will likely collapse or be rendered inoperable by another major earthquake." Keep the tax and replace the bridge, was the implied message.

What will Proposition 1 do to address this situation? The Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) funding will correct merely one of the 34 local bridges in acute need of repair or replacement, the South Park Bridge over the Duwamish River. As the Sierra Club's Mike O'Brien points out, "The federal evaluation criteria tells us they are at higher risk, and with RTID we have elected to make expansion the priority, rather than structural safety."

As for the 520 bridge-replacement project, RTID has budgeted some money to help but not enough to do the job. The estimated total cost is $4.4 billion. RTID has allocated about $1 billion, the state gas tax can contribute another billion, some emergency state money for the Alaskan Way Viaduct could be transferred to the 520 bridge, and then there's the prospect of tolling the users of 520, aided by a federal grant. It still isn't enough, and no official entity has spelled out where the balance of the money will come from. The RTID's campaign promises that "a vote for the Roads and Transit plan is a vote for [520] bridge replacement." Not really.

The Sierra Club complains that $1.3 billion is allocated to add lanes to Interstate 405 – money that could have been used to close the gap and enable a new 520 bridge to be built, rather than just started. Similarly, Sound Transit will spend huge sums to modify the I-90 floating bridge to accommodate trains. This is a role for which it was not designed and is ill-suited. The conversion will narrow safety margins and reduce the capacity of the I-90 bridge.

So it is reasonable to ask, concerning the 33 local bridges with safety ratings below 25 and that serve more than 400,000 trips per day, why aren't they given priority status, ahead of costly new highway and rail expansion projects? The 520 bridge handles 120,000 daily trips, and there isn't enough money to do that job. The Alaskan Way Viaduct serves 110,000, and the need to devise some way to handle that traffic – whether a surface solution, rebuilt viaduct, new viaduct, or tunnel – is designated no RTID funds.

There is another way to go, rather than follow the patterns of spending on new and politically popular projects. A new study by the Government Accounting Office, "Strategies Are Available for Making Existing Road Infrastructure Perform Better" (July 2007, GAO-07-920 [2 MB PDF]), outlines how, with prudent investments and innovations, existing service can be maintained, and more service could be extracted from existing transportation infrastructure, and provides numerous illustrations.

The primary inhibition to efficient use of transportation infrastructure is the failure of local planning bodies and political leaders to optimize "net social benefits," as urged by GAO, when making infrastructure investment decisions. Instead, these planning bodies and local politicians prefer sexy, wasteful projects that facilitate bureaucratic empire building, the rich flow of money to vendors, and a reward system for the helpful political leaders in the form of reciprocal campaign contributions and constituency support. Those pork projects, with political payoffs, bear an uncomfortable resemblance to our local roads-and-transit package.

This pattern goes all the way back to the Federal Highway Act of 1956, which was the biggest public works project in history. Local jurisdictions were awarded 90 percent matching funds toward Interstate highways. Suddenly lots of new projects were designated "interstates," whether they served interstate or local transportation needs, and powerful members of Congress brought home the bacon.

The Seattle Transportation Plan of 1969 dramatized the feeding frenzy: Lines on maps hither and yon, north and south, east and west, including an expansive Forward Thrust rail network. The federal government, thanks to the ranking influence of Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, would pay the lion's share of the capital costs of both highways and local rail lines.

Seattle's anti-freeway movement, with Citizens Against R.H. Thomson (a proposed expressway that would have cut through the Arboretum) leading the way, enabled taxpayers to dodge a bullet. Seattle grudgingly abandoned its plan to displace tens of thousands of residents and businesspeople to make way for a dense network of in-city freeways. CARHT's success also moderated the very heavy maintenance burdens as the freeway infrastructure aged. (We saw a good example of these costs in the recent one-mile I-5 repair job, on a stretch of freeway in its fifth decade of service.)

Those who defeated Forward Thrust Rail in 1968 and 1970 similarly spared the region, in my view. It is an urban legend that central Puget Sound traffic woes would have been alleviated if only Forward Thrust Rail had been built. Instead, "our money" – a generous federal grant – went to Atlanta, for MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. The message is that Seattle's loss was Atlanta's gain. The opposite is the case.

With the aid of that federal money, Atlanta developed rail lines running north, south, east, west, and northeast. Yet today congestion in Atlanta is worse than Seattle's, and Atlanta's urban sprawl is worse. MARTA's ridership is far lower than predicted, and falling. Its operating costs are markedly higher than predicted. Atlanta's transit market share is inferior to Seattle's. Its more-costly rail transit absorbs funds that could support more efficient bus transit, or vanpools. Because of misrepresented ridership and operating costs, MARTA's fares and tax subsidies haven't generated a robust capital replacement fund, as they were supposed to. So now, with the aging system in its fourth decade, with a new round of major capital investments required, the bank is empty, and red ink is accumulating. Supporters think the best way out is to give MARTA to the State of Georgia, with deeper pockets than Atlanta has, but Georgia is unwilling to take on such an unattractive liability.

Atlanta's experience suggests that more skepticism is in order about the claimed benefits of politically popular projects. In a recent essay, "We just discovered the I-5 solution," Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat provided a good dose of constructive skepticism. He observed about the surprisingly untraumatic closing of some lanes for repair on I-5, "The dawn-to-dusk traffic apocalypse never arrived. ... Where in the world did all the cars go?"

They didn't go to transit, he observed, save maybe 5 percent. With help from experts at the Washington State Department of Transportation, Westneat concluded that, "'The traffic mostly shifted and spread.' So it wasn't that folks left town or flocked to transit or stopped running errands. They changed how and when they drove, but they kept on driving. So here's my idea: Let's replicate what just happened. ... [I]t would free up money for better transit and for repairing the dilapidated roads we've already got. It's your choice. The current [roads-and-transit] plan is to spend the most money ever asked of local taxpayers and still not solve the problem. Or, as you just did, you could try something else."

Westneat is on target. The region did this once before, when financial distress forced it to take a hard look at the costs to complete five new, over-budget nuclear plants, and it changed direction. Guided by the newly-instituted Northwest Power Planning Council, the Northwest reduced the annual growth of electric energy during the 1980s from 6 percent to 1 percent, fully met the energy needs of a growing economy and population, and became a world leader in energy planning and more efficient use of electricity. Meanwhile, the transportation sector slogs along in the dark ages.

Rail transit has undeniable popular appeal, like nuclear power once had, but it's an expensive technology. Rail's drawbacks are compounded by the difficult terrain of this region, requiring tunneling through hills composed of unstable, wet glacial till, and the need to bridge lakes and rivers. Meanwhile, there are ready opportunities to make better use of the existing infrastructure and transit systems, at a small fraction of the cost of rail or another freeway, plus there are superior ways to invest in new capacity. That message has not made it into the heads of our political leadership.

What Westneat noticed is a range of ways existing capacity can be better used. Imagine if the region systematically guided, supported, and implemented those opportunities, and crafted incentives (such as demand management and tolling, or subsidies for vanpooling and bike commuting) to accomplish that end.

Instead, this region seems bent on emulating the diversion of infrastructure funds as in other cities. Escalating transit costs now comprise 52 percent of all local, state, and federal transportation spending in the region – while transit market share has fallen below 3 percent. With approval of Proposition 1, transit will escalate further to 63 percent of total transportation spending, with little gain in market share and falling overall transit productivity. Meanwhile, cost-effective, energy-efficient measures to maintain and improve the transportation infrastructure and add new capacity will be stymied and starved.


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