Who’s right about our transportation problems: Ron Sims or Christine Gregoire?

In late September, King County Executive Ron Sims came out and said he would vote “no” on King County Proposition 1, the enormous tri-county transportation package that would combine road construction and an extension of Sound Transit’s light rail line. Sims, a dedicated supporter of Sound Transit, shocked everyone by saying that Proposition 1 is a regressive bill that would do little to alleviate congestion, would build light rail where there is little demand for it, and would contribute drastically to global warming by encouraging the use of single-passenger automobiles.

A week later, Governor Christine Gregoire encouraged people to vote “yes” on Proposition 1, saying that there are important safety issues involved. At the same time, Sound Transit sent out an informational mailer that claimed that Proposition 1 would provide money to replace bridges in the tri-county area.

Notice that Gregoire tried to shift the debate away from the argument that Proposition 1 promotes global warming. That’s an argument she can’t counter, because it’s obviously true; hence, she chose not to address it. Instead, Gov. Gregoire opted to scare us into voting for Proposition 1 by using the example of a recent Minneapolis bridge collapse to highlight her safety concerns. If we don’t pass Proposition 1, she implied, we can expect bridges to start collapsing all over the Puget Sound region.

In fact, Proposition 1 contains $5.4 billion that will go to projects in King County and, of that $5.4 billion, only $1.2 billion is for maintenance work and bridge replacement (less than one-quarter of the total). That $1.2 billion will be used to replace only two bridges: the South Park Bridge and the 520 Bridge. The South Park Bridge replacement will cost $110 million. That’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the total amount of the bill. On the other hand, the 520 Bridge will get $1.1 billion, which is about one-third of the funds needed to complete construction on the span (the rest is supposed to come from state and federal funds–well, good luck with that). The remaining money for King County projects–$4.2 billion–will be used primarily for new construction for congestion relief, freight mobility, and additional HOV lanes.

Furthermore, Proposition 1 will divert local money from important bridge repairs. Several of the congestion relief and freight mobility projects in Proposition 1 will rely on the City of Seattle to provide local funds to supplement what the package provides. In other words, the city has to cough up a share of the costs.

Three weeks ago Mayor Greg Nickels released a new draft of the Seattle City budget which cuts tens of millions of dollars for the following bridge repair and replacement projects: the Magnolia Bridge replacement, the 12th Avenue South bridge deck repair project, and repairs to the 15th Avenue NE bridge and the East Duwamish Waterway bridge.

The Magnolia Bridge, in particular, is deserving of immediate attention; it was damaged in 1997 by a landslide and then further damaged in the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001. Yet the Seattle City budget cuts $23.5 million from the Magnolia Bridge fund and diverts that money to Proposition 1 projects, particularly the Mercer Street expansion, a congestion relief plan that will benefit developers and landowners in the South Lake Union area, including Paul Allen, the area’s largest landowner.

The City of Seattle plans to fund the Mercer Street expansion and various freight mobility improvements (which would mostly benefit the Port of Seattle and its affiliated businesses) by issuing $62 million in bonds in 2008 alone, an increase of $27 million over what was originally budgeted. In addition, the city will divert $4.7 million from the General Subfund (which funds everything from fire stations and public libraries to community activity centers and arts programs) and an additional $9 million from the cumulative reserves fund. Proposition 1, if it passes, will become a black hole that sucks up funds for bridge repairs in Seattle, but also devours large chunks of other money from the city budget that could be used for a whole range of other projects, including low-income housing, which is certainly more important than saving commuters a 10-minute wait on Mercer Street during rush hour.

Gov. Gregoire, by skipping the discussion about global warming and changing the argument to one of safety and road maintenance, was clearly showing her ignorance of the broader impact of Proposition 1. But mostly she was just trying to lighten her own workload. If Proposition 1 fails at the polls in November, then the tri-county Regional Transportation Investment District will dissolve at the end of December. When the state legislature reconvenes in January, Gov. Gregoire will face increasing pressure to come up with a “transportation solution.”

Potential solutions already exist and are working in other parts of the world. The use of tolls to pay for transportation improvements is widespread on the East Coast and is finally making its way west. State Department of Transportation officials are already considering tolls as an option to make up for sagging revenues from the gas tax (apparently, increased gas prices have forced Washington residents to drive less, buy less gas, and pay less in gas taxes than the state originally estimated). And tolls may become the only way to reliably fund the 520 Bridge project.

In his criticism of Proposition 1, Ron Sims pointed out that financing transportation costs through the sales tax is regressive and unfair to the state’s citizens. He suggested using a combination of tolls and “congestion pricing.” European cities, including London and several cities in Sweden, have used congestion pricing for years. In congestion pricing, the city designates a toll on certain roads or sections of the city during certain peak travel hours of the day. Any vehicle that uses the designated roads or enters or leaves the designated congestion area during those peak traffic times would pay a small fee. Tolls and congestion pricing are user fees that fall more heavily on commercial vehicles and wealthy drivers (who can already afford higher gas prices and exorbitant downtown parking fees) than on the poor, who are more likely to commute by bus or drive during off-peak times. For weekend trips, mid-day visits to the doctor, or evening drives to a movie theater, concert, or a Seahawks game, congestion pricing wouldn’t apply.

Conversely, if we enact a sales tax increase, the poor will pay a much higher percentage of their income in traffic congestion taxes than the wealthy would. This would unfairly impact low-income people who have already decided for economic reasons to take the bus to and from work. It would also place a burden on retirees, who don’t contribute much at all to traffic congestion.

User fees have an added benefit: they provide an additional economic incentive for people to leave their cars at home. In August, Seattle was confronted with a potential traffic congestion nightmare when most lanes of I-5 south of the city were closed for several days because of road maintenance work. Not only did most people leave their cars at home, but most made the switch to commuting by bus and train almost effortlessly. More importantly, after the I-5 work was completed, a significant number of people continued to commute by train and bus. Even after the incentive to not drive was removed, people still chose to leave their cars behind.

Removing cars from the road is the only viable solution to our traffic congestion problems. Spending billions of dollars to build additional lanes of traffic that will take twenty years to complete is not the answer. And the best way to address the environmental impact of automobile emissions is not to burn fuel made from corn in our gas tanks, but to ask ourselves why each one of us still has to acquire, maintain, and feed a single-passenger automobile.

We need to think to the future, then come up with solutions that are pro-active and future-oriented, instead of reactive and rooted in the past. Proposition 1 is driven by the desire to recapture a hazy memory of the good old days when we had wide-open roads from Tacoma all the way north to Bellingham. That past is gone forever, and the sooner we all admit it, the better.

ETS! endorsements for the Nov. 6 ballot ran last issue (Vol. 12, No. 3); they are available online at http://www.eatthestate.org/12-03/Election07Shotgun.htm.