My way is the highway, and so it is for most people

In answer to King County Executive Ron Sims, who opposes the roads-and-transit ballot measure: Saving the polar bears is nice, but more highway capacity is an economic imperative, for individuals and businesses alike.
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The Seattle traffic map at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2007. (WSDOT)

In answer to King County Executive Ron Sims, who opposes the roads-and-transit ballot measure: Saving the polar bears is nice, but more highway capacity is an economic imperative, for individuals and businesses alike.

Last week, my former King County Council colleague, Ron Sims, announced his opposition to November's roads-and-transit ballot measure, Proposition 1. It is not my intent to defend the specifics of the Sound Transit and Regional Transportation Investment District's (RTID) plans, or to respond directly to the county executive's guest column in The Seattle Times. Sims, for instance, makes some interesting points regarding financing and the phasing and siting of light rail that I will leave for others to discuss.

What I do want to address is the central argument Sims advances, which is prevalent among those I labeled "Rail Zealots" in an earlier article, namely that the roads-and-transit plan should be rejected because it expands general purpose freeway capacity in the Puget Sound region. The Zealots tie freeway expansion to the emotional issue de jour – global warming – and argue that we should only invest in rail, buses, and HOV lanes. This is a completely unrealistic transportation "strategy" for the Puget Sound region, driven by emotion and politics, not reason. Worse, it grants to government more power over our personal choices than most citizens should be comfortable with.

On the issue of freeway capacity, Sims is oblique, but his meaning is clear:

Tragically, this plan continues the national policy of ignoring our impacts upon global warming. In a region known for our leadership efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, this plan will actually boost harmful carbon emissions.

Translation: no more freeway lanes; no more cars. Instead of adding freeway capacity, Sims calls for measures to reduce the number of cars on the roads:

The package before us does not include solutions like congestion pricing or variable tolls. The goal of congestion pricing is to keep our highways moving efficiently, getting people to work or home in the shortest amount of time. With congestion pricing we would see immediate results.

"Congestion pricing" is a system of taxes on drivers who use certain roads at certain times of the day. Unlike traditional tolls or fuel taxes, congestion pricing is not intended to generate revenue to pay for additional transportation supply, but rather change behavior and suppress transportation demand.

Rail Zealots want to keep the freeways crowded and then tax people into using buses and trains. Is this the right way to approach transportation?

In this most contentious of debates, there are some facts we can all agree on. First, we have a congestion problem. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, the Seattle area has the 15th-worst congestion in the nation. Congestion ("rush hour") now lasts 7.2 hours per day, up from 4.4 hours in 1982, and costs us $1.4 billion annually. Second, there are more people coming. The Puget Sound Regional Council estimates our population will grow by 1.5 million people, a 50 percent increase, by 2030. Imagine Interstate 405 in the afternoon then!

In addition, I hope we can all agree that the new freeway capacity proposed in the RTID plan is modest. Sims himself says it only represents a 4.9 percent increase in freeway capacity. No one is proposing to build new freeways. We will not be voting on whether or not to build Interstate 605, the dream of some road advocates for a whole new corridor east of Lake Sammamish.

What will be on the ballot are a series of projects that maintain existing capacity, widen existing freeways, improve chokepoints, and, in many cases, complete long-planned linkages. One of my favorite projects is finally linking Highway 509 with Interstate 5, a south King County project that has literally been planned for decades. The RTID plan will essentially complete our existing urban road grid in the Puget Sound region. Unlike post-World War II freeway projects, it will not open up vast new areas to development.

Rail Zealots, of course, will argue that any new capacity, no matter how small, will increase our carbon emissions and help melt the polar ice cap. I like polar bears as much as anyone, but there are some very good reasons why we need more good-old-fashioned general purpose freeway lanes in the Puget Sound area.

We are a port city. Our economy largely depends on big ships, big trains, and big trucks being able to move stuff in and out of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma quickly, easily, and predictably. Trucks don't fit on Sounder trains. Our ports are in competition with ports up and down the West Coast. If we do nothing and allow freeway congestion to get worse and worse, we will be irresponsibly forfeiting jobs as our trucks sit in traffic back ups.

Truckers aren't the only people who depend on regular freeway lanes. Some of us just can't use transit. I work out of my home in Auburn. Sometimes I have to meet with clients in Bellingham or Olympia, leaving me no choice but to drive alone through Seattle or Tacoma traffic. I have a friend who lives in Pierce County but works in a small office in King County. There are no transit options which connect his home and his work; no one else in his office lives anywhere near him, and he can't afford a house in King County. He has no choice but to struggle up and down already-gridlocked Highway 167 every day.

Transit doesn't work for many people in our modern economy. Buses and trains are a great option when you live in the suburbs and work in a big factory or an office building downtown. In fact, the buses and trains flowing into Seattle's central business district are full or nearly full now. But how many of us today live and work in that traditional pattern? I suspect that the Internet and the proliferation of very small workplaces will actually decrease the ability of many to use transit. Is it fair, then, for our government to deny to many the transportation option that works best for them?

Transportation is a basic government function. We have a right to expect that our representatives will tax us to provide and maintain transportation infrastructure, not tax us for making what they consider the wrong decision. Government should build a reasonable mixture of both roads and transit systems, and then let us decide for ourselves how we want to live our lives.

This debate – roads, transit, and global warming – will go on, especially if the roads-and-transit measure fails. If that happens, the business community, for one, is worried that rail will quickly get back on the ballot, while the roads package will disappear. That can't be allowed to happen. As our region grows, we must invest in both more and better transit, and an improved freeway system.

No one can expect government to build enough freeway lanes to eliminate congestion. Where it is effective, transit is a better option for society than single-occupant vehicles, and climate change is a major challenge. But our people and our economy need the common-sense upgrades to our 40-year-old freeway system embodied in the RTID package. We must be able to move freight in and out of our ports, and not all of those new 1.5 million people are going to ride transit every day.

There will be lots more cars on our roads in the future. If we're lucky, they will be running on climate-friendly electricity or biofuels, but they will be there. The realistic and responsible course of action is to take the steps necessary to limit congestion and make our freeway system as efficient as possible. Transportation decisions should be driven by common-sense planning, not political correctness and ideology.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.