Guest Opinion: Where is the region's viable and sustainable transportation plan?

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Traffic on I-405 near the Highway 520 interchange: Is help on the way?

According to the long-range transportation plan for the region, in 2040 the Puget Sound area will have built light rail lines from Everett to Tacoma and from Seattle to Redmond. We also will have doubled the bus service. We will have tolled all the lanes on all the major highways. We will have extensive urban area parking charges. We will have encouraged development around rail stations.

So a question: Of the projected 19 million daily trips by all modes of transportation (car, carpool, transit, walking and cycling) what percentage of trips will be on light rail?

You’ll have to guess, because that number is not published in the Puget Sound Regional Council Transportation 2040 Update, approved by regional leaders last spring.

After 40 years and 72 miles of light rail line, according to calculations based on information from PSRC, fewer than 1 percent of the 19 million daily regional trips will be taken on light rail.

Overall transit use (light and commuter rail plus buses) goes from 3.1 percent today to 4.3 percent in 2040. The great majority of mass transit rides will still be on buses.

Congestion is expected to increase 38 percent on arterials and decrease 13 percent on freeways because the plan assumes tolling on all major highways and area wide parking charges. While efforts to implement these user-based fees have been in the works for two decades, there is currently no agreement by the Legislature on when and how to implement them. These types of fees are very controversial and still don’t address the unacceptable increase in traffic on arterials due to drivers avoiding tolls. In addition, the Legislature is considering whether or not to allow Sound Transit to come back to the voters in 2016 to increase their sales and car tab taxing authority and to add property taxes.

How can that be? How can the region plan to spend so much and get so little? Why aren’t these numbers in headlines instead of buried in dense documents or not published at all?

You only have to get out of downtown Seattle, or its more densely populated neighborhoods, to see why: Most people in our region don’t and won’t live and work near an existing or planned rail station. In 2040, the average household will continue to find that transit provides reasonable access – 30 minutes or less – to a tiny fraction of the region’s employment opportunities. Yes, the transit ridership numbers into downtown Seattle during rush hour are better. But this is a regional plan, and everyone is paying.

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Are there better ways to spend transit dollars and get higher performance than what we are planning? Yes.

For example, bus rapid transit offers rapid boarding, limited stops and less congested special lanes. BRT can be in place in a matter of years, not decades, and can reach many more people. Investment for BRT is in service to customers, not expensive capital facilities like tracks, tunnels and stations.  We’ve invested billions of dollars in 310 miles of HOV lanes. Let’s use them to move carpools and buses better.

The region should let go of the widespread myth that Atlanta and Portland are much better off because they have rail systems, and they started the systems much sooner than we did.  Our region has higher transit ridership than either of them, much higher than Atlanta, and highway congestion is worse in Atlanta and not much better in Portland. Seattle actually is in the top 10 cities in the U.S. for transit ridership; over 99 percent of that ridership is by bus. Even after we voted to build light rail 20 years ago, it carries only about 0.25 percent of the trips in the region.

The projections and growing congestion are unacceptable; we need a real regional plan.

The Legislature should require the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Puget Sound Regional Council, Sound Transit and local transit agencies to do the following four things:

  • Put performance measures up front and center. Planners should clearly and consistently state the region’s goals and projected and actual performance measures for all critical components of transportation, including ridership for each type of transit and cost per new rider; carpool/vanpool ridership and cost per new rider; speed and percent of growth in urban centers; and access to jobs by transit.
  • Identify how the state will deliver on its commitment to keep traffic in the HOV lanes moving at 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time.
  • Require consistency among plans. Explain the justification for PSRC specifying tolls in its Transportation 2040 Plan for all lanes of freeways and expressways when the Legislature is not considering them and there is no other plan to prevent soaring congestion.
  • First, do no harm.Do not allow any further Sound Transit tax increases to be on the ballot until these three requirements have been met.

This isn’t the old argument of roads vs. transit. This is about having real goals, plans, honest conversations, and decisions based on facts.

Contact your elected officials. We each have a right and responsibility to ask, what is going on? Where is the viable and sustainable Transportation Plan for our region?

For more about ourFor more about our sources and actual documents used in preparing this story and the graphic, you can download a pdf here or visit


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Maggie Fimia

Maggie Fimia of Edmonds is a former King County Councilmember & Puget Sound Regional Council Transportation Policy Board member. John Niles of Seattle is an independent transportation policy researcher and president of Global Telematics. Victor H. Bishop, P.E., is a transportation engineer who lives in Bellevue.