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Roads, Transit Package Fails to Stop Greenhouse Gas

Our region is struggling with how to deal with two huge problems — global warming pollution and traffic congestion. While many of our public officials from cities to the statehouse have acknowledged both problems, few have connected the dots to see that we need to reduce our car emissions and improve our transportation system in order to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.

Pierce, Snohomish and King County councils will soon review the combined "Roads and Transit" package, including the next phase of Sound Transit (ST2) and a large road infrastructure package from the regional transportation investment district (RTID) Combined, the package will cost $17.7 billion.

In our view, it does little to reduce greenhouse gas pollution or long-term traffic congestion. Indeed, it will make both worse. Our addiction to oil has left us with a broken transportation system — it's expensive to maintain, there are few alternatives to driving alone in a car, and our communities are choked with traffic congestion.

Our concerns with this package are that it unnecessarily spends sales tax revenues on new highways; it does not prioritize fix-it-first projects, like the 520 Bridge replacement, over new highway lanes; its impact on greenhouse gas emissions has not been assessed, and it ignores a quicker, cheaper solution to traffic congestion: congestion pricing.

Unfortunately, while this package does invest in transit, it does not reduce our region's greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists around the world agree that that we need to reduce global warming pollution 80 percent from today's levels by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change. In the Puget Sound region, more than half of our greenhouse gas pollution comes from the transportation sector. The Puget Sound Business Journal recently ran Op-Ed pieces about clean-car technologies to increase fuel efficiency and to substitute biofuels. These technologies are a necessary step to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but in best-case scenarios, these technologies can only offset projected population growth. Alone they will not achieve the necessary reductions.

That means we need to figure out how to reduce the amount we drive, and invest in alternatives to meet our mobility needs. Yet in designing what will likely be the largest transportation ballot measure in the region's history, the RTID board is recommending more roads, more cars, and therefore increased emissions.

Some will argue that the 50 new miles of light rail in ST2 should offset the damage of new highways. But we will not move people out of cars if we are simultaneously expanding roadways. With roads, if you build them, the drivers will follow. Studies done in California show that congestion relief is short lived — 60 percent to 90 percent of new road capacity is filled within 5 years. Here, we doubled Interstate 90 in 1991 (to eight lanes from four) and within 15 years, travel speeds at peak commute are below 35 mph on 80% of the days. Simply adding more lanes today will mean more greenhouse gas pollution — and the same frustrating congestion — tomorrow, with or without light rail.

So what should we do?

We think it's time to look at congestion pricing. In the business world, we deal with supply and demand issues daily, and the market sends us pricing signals to lead us to the most efficient use of resources. In our transportation system, there is clearly more demand for highway lanes than there is supply at the current price — free. If Starbucks gave away its coffee for free, not only would their business model fail, but demand would far outstrip supply. This spring, a systemwide study was released by King County Executive, Ron Sims, titled Destination 2030 — Taking an Alternative Route. The plan would price all limited access roads in the region, generating $24 billion in revenue (in today's dollars) and reducing congestion. In a recent Washington CEO Magazine editorial, after reviewing the study, they concluded: “But viewed with a cool head, this proposal may be just the kind of market-based solution we need to address our traffic crisis… if we are to protect our quality of life and maintain our economic growth, there may be no other way.”

These aren't yesterday's tollbooths: tolls are set based on demand. Using a crowded highway during rush hour will be more expensive than driving at 10 am or 9 pm. As you price the road, people will shift their travel mode to carpool or transit. Those making discretionary trips may choose to travel at off peak times, and other trips will be diverted or eliminated entirely as a result of price sensitivity. The revenue generated could be used to maintain the existing infrastructure and provide transit.

We think there is a path to a healthy and vibrant future for the region that addresses both climate change and our traffic problems. But to get there we must stop looking to the past for solutions. Building more and more freeways put us in this predicament, and more of the same will not solve the problem. We need to invest in a 21st century transportation system that will be healthy for our communities and our planet.