Puget Sound's 5 worst transportation problems

By Josh Cohen
Crosscut archive image.

A familiar sight: traffic on 1st Ave in Seattle, WA.

By Josh Cohen

On a sunny afternoon in March, a salmon-filled tractor-trailer flipped over on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. With Highway 99 blocked, city streets and highways ground to a halt.

Hours later, commuters began their trip home. While drivers sat in traffic for an hour to travel less than two miles, bus riders abandoned Metro for foot.

That a single truck crash can bring Seattle to a standstill is evidence enough that the Seattle Metro area has serious transportation problems. But, as we all know, multi-hour commutes in gridlocked traffic are nothing new.

Nor are transportation challenges: King County Metro, operating at a reduced capacity due to funding shortages, is seeing record ridership. The Seattle Bicycle Master Plan has been chronically underfunded since its adoption in 2007. The one-line light rail currently serves a small area from the airport to downtown and is well over a decade from completion.

As Weyerhaeuser, Expedia and other companies set up shop in the city of Seattle, population only promises to grow – and our traffic woes along with it.

It’s little wonder that one of Seattle Metropolitan area’s claims to fame is its consistent rank in the top-10 worst cities in the U.S. for traffic jams.

There’s no one easy fix. But before even talking fixes, you have to wonder: What are the worst, teeth-grinding, road-rage-inducing, traffic-jam-causing transportation problems facing Seattle Metro bikers, drivers, transit-riders and pedestrians?

1. Money, money, money

Seattle’s 2006, $365 million Bridging the Gap levy has been the city’s primary funding source for road maintenance, bridge repair and replacement, sidewalk building, transit improvements and the implementation of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, among other things. It expires this year.

On March 18, Mayor Murray proposed a $900 million levy that will go to City Council for approval before likely landing on the November ballot.

“We've never put the investments in at the level we need…we're playing serious catch up,” said Murray.

Of course, the funding shortage ripples beyond urban boundaries as well. According to Chris Arkills, Transportation Policy Advisory to King County Executive Dow Constantine, King County Metro relies on Washington state sales tax as their primary funding source. They’ve seen 25 percent less funding since the recession. Because they can’t keep up with maintenance, Arkills said that unincorporated King County might have to revert some roads to gravel and close aging bridges.

What about other taxes, tolls or levies as a source of funding? Martin Duke, Editor-in-Chief of the Seattle Transit Blog, said people hate the options available for funding projects. Whether it’s raising the gas tax, voting for a new levy or implementing a new toll, Duke said that people would “rather spend 45 minutes in traffic rather than pay $4 on a toll.”

2. Water in our (right of) way

Between numerous bodies of water and a firm urban growth boundary, the roads we’ve got are pretty much the roads we’re going to get.

“We have a growing population,” said Scott Kubly, Director of Seattle Department Of Transportation (SDOT), “[and] increasing competition for the use of right of way, but we're not widening any streets. … We need to use it more efficiently.”

Arkills echoed Kubly’s call for efficiency, saying that freeway expansion beyond projects already on the books – like the Viaduct, 520, 405, 509 and 167 – is unlikely. After figuring out first how to make the right of way work for single occupancy vehicles, Arkills emphasized that “we need…to shift more of that growth towards alternatives to single occupancy vehicles.”

“At the end of the day,” Kubly said, “the thing that's going to help solve our transportation problems most effectively is really strong transit…It's going to mean getting more people on buses, walking, biking. Even if you can't use one of those modes, the fact that someone else is, [will] benefit you.”

3. The light-rail question

“We're dealing with decades of underinvestment in transit. We've spent probably the last 20 years fighting just to get started building a regional mass transit system,” said Ric Ilgenfritz, Sound Transit’s Executive Director of Planning.

Seattle had a shot in the late 1960s, but voted against building a rail system. According to Arkills, “the federal government paid for a much higher percentage of rail systems at that time. That federal money instead went to Atlanta to build the MARTA system.”

For a long time, the light-rail question lingered, and the region sometimes seemed more serious about exploring a bus rapid transit system. But light rail eventually won out with policy makers and voters.

Fast forward to 2015, when, between limited roads and the political cost of creating transit-only lanes to keep buses out of traffic jams, the light rail is one of the region’s best options for moving lots of people quickly. Unfortunately, it’s also very costly. The Central Link section, which connects Westlake to SeaTac, cost over $2 billion.

Sound Transit 2, the current taxing authority, will pay to extend the light rail north to Lynnwood, south to Federal Way and across I-90 to Bellevue.

In order for light rail to continue expanding, the legislature needs to allow Sound Transit 3 (ST3) onto a future ballot. If approved, it will provide Sound Transit $15 billion in taxing authority to expand light rail from Tacoma to Everett, connect Ballard and West Seattle to downtown and add a Redmond station.

Whether a majority of Seattleites are ready to vote for such a taxing authority remains to be seen, but Ilgenfritz said that he’s cautiously optimistic.

“People are pretty intuitive. If you're stuck in traffic or stuck on a bus or stuck at the bus stop because the bus goes by full, the commute is a barrier to you living your life the way you want to. If people see the right investments in [ST3], they’ll vote for it,” Ilgenfritz said.

4. Old Seattle versus new

For the majority of its history, Seattle has been a relatively small city where most people lived in single-family homes and drove cars everywhere. But new residents are pouring in monthly, residents who tend to be younger, less likely to drive and more likely to live in multi-family residences near the urban center.

“We’re trying to deliver services to the city we have and plan for the city we need to be,” said SDOT’s Kubly, “It's an inherent tension and challenge.”

Murray is optimistic that if the region can build a robust transportation network, people won’t care whether they’re traveling by car, bus or bike. “The more I talk to people, I realize the real concern … is the fear of not being able to move around the city or in and out of city. … It's more of a general ‘this doesn't seem to be working for us’ kind of concern.”

In the surrounding suburbs, driving is still often the only choice for people trying to navigate low-density layouts.

“Land use and building regulations that require [low density] development [are] very, very bad,” said Seattle Transit Blog’s Duke. “People mostly drive everywhere. It creates congestion and compounds other environmental costs of driving.”

 5. Agencies don’t work together

 “One of the big barriers is that we build up — and it's an overused metaphor — silos around ourselves and the ways our organizations think,” said Brian Lagerberg, Washington State Department of Transportation public transportation division director.

“Where we fall down,” he continued, “is when we [just] focus on individual pieces of the system.” A collaborative approach, he said, could lead to more effective projects in the future.

Sound Transit’s Ilgenfritz agreed, saying that collaboration between Sound Transit and Metro will improve the region’s transit moving forward. Last year, King County’s Constantine signed an executive order directing Metro to integrate service planning with Sound Transit. Ilgenfritz said that they’re acting on that order by inviting Metro employees to weigh in on ST3 and sending Sound Transit planners to participate in Metro’s long-range strategic planning.

In addition to combining planning efforts, WSDOT’s Lagerberg said collaboration is about pooling limited resources.

“For any individual organization there may be a gap, but that small amount of funding for each organization, [when] added together, may provide the solution we need. That's not how we traditionally planned or thought about the system.”

So, about those fixes...

Some of the area’s transportation problems are insurmountable (looking at you, beautiful and right-of-way-filling bodies of water). But others, though extremely challenging, can be solved. The question is: How?

How should we pay for robust transit? In what way should our transit agencies work together? What should our land use policies look like?

If we can answer these questions, someday a salmon truck on its side will be a minor headache instead of a headline-grabbing trafficpocalypse.

Editor’s Note: These are the “Puget Sound's worst transportation problems,” according to city officials. But Crosscut wants to know what you, Seattle area commuters, think: What is the Puget Sound region’s worst transportation problem? Share your battle story here.

As we gear up for our next Community Idea Lab on transportation, your feedback will inform our coverage and our brains.


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