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April 4, 2008

U.S. Transportation Chief Visits Seattle

Seattle isn't always the first stop for U.S. Cabinet officials. But if U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters' visit today is any indication, when the issue is transportation, Seattle is a natural top of agenda locale.

With the help of Cascadia Center and others, Secretary Peters swept into town on Friday for a series of meetings with business and policy leaders. The Cascadia Center, with its growing leadership in the alternative energy and plug-in hybrid, electric vehicle space, played a critical role in the visit by coordinating several meetings for the United States' 15th transportation chief.

Today's closed meetings and work sessions focused on the question of transportation technology, innovation, finance and the Northwest's leadership role in finding solutions to regional and nationwide transportation challenges. Phoenix Motorcars, an electric car company based in California, brought one of its prototypes to Seattle for Secretary Peters and others to see.

Cascadia Center has long argued that the U.S. reliance on foreign oil is not sustainable. As former CIA director James Woolsey has said, it's an addiction that funds both sides of the war on terrorism. Based on our research and analysis, the most sensible way to move beyond oil is to use clean electricity to power vehicles.

We'd like to see the Northwest lead in the adoption of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. It's the best way to: achieve greater energy independence, cut greenhouse gases and help reduce our trade deficit. It's clear to us that a Northwest pilot project that showed the successful adoption of PHEVs by commercial and government fleets as well as consumers could set a workable, realistic example for other regions and the country.

We're working with the state and U.S. transportation departments on proposals that would test how to recharge PHEVs at park and ride lots. (The illustration to the right is one vision.) And we're also collaborating to encourage transit use and to introduce congestion pricing to replace lost gas tax revenues when gas consumption declines with the move to alternative fuels and electricity.

Today's visit by Secretary Peters is evidence that the nation's leaders are willing to look to the Northwest for ideas and examples of how to confront transportation challenges now and down the road. We believe the region's political and business leaders are up to the challenge.

April 8, 2008

The Difference Between Cordon Pricing And Congestion Pricing

Sure, everyone called it a congestion pricing plan. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ambitious proposal to charge drivers $8 to enter Manhattan below 60th Street during peak hours was more about cordon pricing, literally drawing a line around downtown. Singapore, London (see map, right) and Stockholm have implemented similar plans. In contrast, the typical congestion pricing project in U.S. metro regions doesn't impose downtown cordon fees for drivers, but focuses on specific crowded highways, with variable fees keyed to traffic levels, and thus higher charges at peak hours. A related strategy involves a split between free lanes which are often more congested, and electronically-tolled High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes allowing carpools, transit and for a variable fee, solo drivers to speed past traffic. Tolls are collected electronically by overhead gantries communicating with dashboard transponders.

The difference between cordon pricing and congestion pricing is detailed in this primer from the Federal Highway Administration.

In the Northwest online newspaper Crosscut Knute Berger today contends the New York setback could foreshadow growing opposition to expansion of congestion pricing in Puget Sound. Berger's certainly right that any type of new traffic-pricing scheme will provoke some degree of political resistance. However, metro Puget Sound is not considering downtown cordon fees, as New York was. More at issue here is how fast and far HOT lanes and possibly, broader-brush highway tolling strategies will grow, as the region experiences a projected 52 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2040.

A related concern in Pugetopolis, admittedly also a part of the opposition to New York's cordon pricing plan, is how soon and how well transit choices can be improved so that commuters and discretionary intra-region travellers can get around quickly without driving. The current hub-and-spoke transit system centered around downtown Seattle does little to serve growing suburb-to-suburb transit mobility needs.

So far, the biggest gripe here against congestion pricing has been that HOT lanes - coming later this month to a stretch of State Route 167 and within a year or two to the State Route 520 floating bridge and possibly the I-90 bridge as well - are really "Lexus Lanes" affordable only to the rich. In town last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters responded to the criticism. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported:

...Peters....called the "Lexus lanes" label "an urban myth that isn't exactly true." She said congestion-based tolls benefit lower-income drivers more than some with higher incomes. Lower-income people, she said, often must live in less-expensive housing farther from jobs and are more likely to be hourly wage-earners who will benefit more by saving commuting time.

Nice sound bite. But is it actually supported by any sort of dispassionate analysis? Um, yes, actually. From The Democratic Leadership Council, the Washington Post and the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Here's something else that's revealing: tolling, of which HOT lanes are one type, is growing so rapidly across the country that states in the Midwest and Eastern U.S. have adopted a common transponder and billing tool set for interstate drivers and commuters who may use more than one system on the same trip. It's called E-ZPass. The Toldeo Blade has more.

E-ZPass itself is the trade name used by the Inter Agency Group, a multistate consortium that sets equipment standards, coordinates billing, and created the distinctive purple signs that identify electronic-toll lanes at members' toll plazas. Thanks to that cooperation, each toll authority's transponders work at everybody's tollgates, so there's no need to obtain a different tag for each.

E-ZPass works in Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hamshire and Maine. The Cascadia Corridor will need a similar approach covering British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California. Particularly with more HOT lanes coming to Puget Sound, and a new tolled bridge planned across the Columbia River on I-5 between Washington and Oregon.

As for the setback dealt to Bloomberg's cordon pricing plan, rest assured a revised proposal will be in the offing.

April 14, 2008

Mobility 2.0 For Puget Sound

With the recent meltdown of the New York City cordon pricing plan, Puget Sound is moving to the forefront of innovative transportation planning -- if our region can get its act together. The success of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, adoption by the Legislature with support from the Governor of a tolling policy for the State Route 520 floating bridge, and the pending State Route 167 HOT lane pilot project combine to fuel possibilities for a strategic pairing of HOT lanes and bus rapid transit in the 405 corridor; in reconfigured I-5 express lanes; and in other critical corridors.

But to implement these and other roads and transit measures will take real money and a single point of accountability, namely a regional transportation decision-making board to plan, prioritize and fund projects. Elected and appointed representatives, covering King, Pierce and Snohomish counties would develop public funding tools for voter approval and - with keen attention to the public interest - would tailor roads and transit funding deals with pension fund investors representing building trades and public employee unions.

The region's private sector business acumen can help solve our mobility challenges. An example is Microsoft, which continues to forge into the transportation field, emphasizing innovation and sustainability. Expansion of Microsoft's popular Connector bus service (pictured above) for employees and the company's emergent in-vehicle Clearflow traffic management system could be part of an important first-phase public-private partnership to deal with Puget Sound road congestion.

USDOT Secretary Mary Peters was clearly impressed with what she heard from Microsoft and other business leaders in her recent visit. By moving to Puget Sound some of the $300-plus million previously earmarked for the Big Apple's failed cordon-pricing project, USDOT could double its $138 million federal Urban Partnership Agreement with our region. The congestion initiative could be expanded to include approaches like those being demonstrated by Microsoft.

Meanwhile, Sound Transit ponders whether it should go out for a public vote in November to fund expansion of regional light rail, following the rejection by voters last fall of a big-ticket light rail and roads measure. The business community, miffed that governance reform was not accomplished in the last Legislature, and worried about a deteriorating economy, is considering advancing a regional transportation governance initiative to consolidate decision-making.

So-called governance reform would foster fresh new approaches to our huge transportation challenges. Taking a page from the software industry and the Web development community, perhaps we should think of the next phase as Mobility 2.0. The idea is to empower the user with new and better tools. Is there really any good reason that new approaches to regional mobility should be set apart from the entrepreneurial spirit that defines the Puget Sound economy? Let's tear down that firewall.


April 16, 2008

Commuter Rail Projects, Proposals Multiply Across U.S.

In Austin, Texas, Capital Metro's new 32-mile long commuter rail line using state-of-the art diesel multiple unit (DMU) cars will begin operations this fall. Officials from around the U.S. are flocking to Austin for demos. Among them were a transportation-focused Washington state contingent in early April organized by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, including WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond, King County Council Member Julia Patterson, Cascadia Center Director Bruce Agnew and Cascadia Senior Fellow Steve Marshall. Agnew is spearheading our Eastside TRailway commuter rail and recreational trail initiative, and Marshall is leading our charge on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which are gaining traction thanks in part to the outstanding work of Austin-based Plug-in Partners and their national grassroots initiative.

The new Austin commuter rail line came to fruition after a $1.9 billion light rail proposal was rejected by voters, according to this Austin American-Statesman article on outgoing Capital Metro Chairman Lee Walker, who championed the new line.

In the San Diego region, the newly-opened, 22-mile, $480 million Sprinter commuter rail line between Oceanside and Escondido, utilizing DMU railcars, is drawing more than 7,000 passengers per day and that number is eventually expected to exceed 11,000, as the San Jose Mercury News reports. The North County Times provides the backstory on development of the line.

Near Portland, Oregon the regional transportation agency Tri-Met will initiate DMU railcar commuter rail service (pictured, above left) next fall on a 14.7-mile line between Beaverton and Wilsonville in Washington County. The project cost $117.3 million and is expected to draw between 3,000 and 4,000 daily riders by 2020. (UPDATE: As The Oregonian reports on Sunday April 20, it's the state's first commuter line; called the Westside Express Service; and at Beaverton connects with two light rail lines into Portland).

The Northstar Commuter Rail project in the Minneapolis is progressing toward likely implementation. Expected to cover much of the funding is a newly-created multi-county transit improvement district that could generate $100 million per year after admininstrative costs. Initial station construction is underway.

North of Dallas, several towns are considering funding an approximately $100,000 feasibility study of a new commuter rail line on an underutilized freight corridor. The NBC-TV affiliate serving Dallas-Fort Worth has more in this report.

Here in Puget Sound, the Eastside TRailway proposal energetically supported by Cascadia Center and others continues to advance. It would run from the town of Snohomish south to Bellevue, Redmond and eventually Renton, connecting growing residential areas to burgeoning job centers. This week, King County Executive Ron Sims wrote to the county council affirming the county will hold to its reversal of an earlier recommendation to rip out the tracks. All this comes as part of a complicated deal with the Port of Seattle, which is buying the 42-mile abandoned rail corridor from BNSF to augment regional freight rail mobility and to facilitate a possible public-private venture for commuter rail with a parallel trail. That dual use is key, Sims said. More from The Seattle Times:

Just about everyone, including rail advocates, agrees that the old tracks would not work for a commuter rail line and will need to be torn out eventually. But keeping the tracks would preserve the ballast underneath and make it much easier to install new, modern tracks, said Bruce Agnew, director of the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center think tank, which has pushed for commuter rail. Rail advocates were worried that if the tracks were removed, a trail would be built right down the middle of the corridor and leave no room for a rail line to return, Agnew said. The Legislature this year approved $100,000 for a study to see if potential ridership is high enough to pursue a commuter rail line on the BNSF corridor.

Additional funds for the study are expected to total as much as another $200,000 combined; coming from The Puget Sound Regional Council and Sound Transit. There's a growing recognition that keeping the railbeds intact is the right move, as The Seattle Times remarks in this editorial about the Sims letter:

For the plainspoken, there are also multiple, unvarnished commitments to preserve the 42-mile BNSF freight corridor for future use as a high-capacity passenger-rail line.In the spirit of safeguarding -- in Sims' words -- this tremendous regional asset, there are no immediate plans to remove the existing rails, even though their useful life may have expired. They represent a valuable placeholder to reinforce the passenger-rail potential. The continued, purposeful physical presence of the rails will help guide and shape public discussions as plans proceed with a parallel and complementary hiking-and-biking trail.

Cascadia gave a well-received presentation on Eastside commuter rail earlier this week to the Snohomish City Council. As elsewhere on the proposed line, there's a high level of interest but also an awareness that running commuter rail through a town takes careful planning. More here, in an an Everett Herald article previewing the council's public forum featuring Agnew and a team of Cascadia rail experts.

By the way, did we mention the Rail Runner Express commuter rail line that's been running since 2006, in the Albuquerque region? (It's above, right).

The upshot of all this: as traffic congestion and population continue to grow in major metro regions across the nation, transit solutions including commuter rail will become increasingly attractive to residents, employers and employees. As will ride-sharing strategies and time-variable tolling.

RELATED: "The Eastside TRailway: Making Trail And Rail Happen For Snohomish And The Eastside," Loren Herrigstad, for Cascadia Center.


April 21, 2008

Gov. Kulongoski Eyes Congestion Pricing In Metro Portland

In a recent speech to the Oregon Environmental Council's Business Forum, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski (below, right) said the transportation plan he'll present to the 2009 state legislature will likely accent congestion pricing. It could also include a statewide low-carbon fuel standard in synch with California's, and incentives for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. More, first from from The Oregonian.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski...said he will likely advocate for rush-hour tolling and other tough measures to control traffic congestion in his 2009 appeal to the Legislature. "In plain English, tolls that vary by time of day, by location, or by congestion level, so that those who are using the highway at the most desirable time are paying more to do so," he said. Kulongoski didn't say which highways might be ripe for "congestion pricing." But the proposed Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River is an example of what he has in mind, said spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor.

...For months, Kulongoski has said he will make his transportation plan a top priority when the Legislature convenes for a new session in January. He has called for improvements to highways and roads throughout the state, emphasizing the massive needs of a system that has failed to keep up with growth. And he has insisted that these improvements also answer concerns about global warming. He wants cleaner cars, more bicycle routes and more mass transit, among other "green" measures. "We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking transportation and climate change are conflicting policy priorities," Kulongoski said. He hasn't put a price tag on his plan, but admits a large new source of funding must be found.

The Portland Business Journal also reported on the Governor's speech, noting his comments on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles:

"We also need to find ways to make it easier for individual citizens to access and use plug-in hybrid and other alternative fuel cars so these become the vehicles of choice," he said.

Increased incentives for telecommuting may figure in to his package of proposed legislation as well, Kulongoski indicated. The Oregonian's report mentions that Pat Reiten, president of Pacific Power, will head a committee for the governor, tasked with developing the broader package of transportation legislation by November.

Gail Achterman, chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission, in a brief paper published at the Web site of the Columbia Crossing I-5 bridge replacement project, states that tolling is a key component of controlling greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, as necessary large-scale infrastructure upgrades occur.

On the transportation side of the equation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require us to consider two key policies: significantly expanding mass transit service, and implementing tolling to reduce demand on the highway system. The Columbia River Crossing would do both. In that sense, it is a major forward step in our regional effort to reduce the carbon footprint of our transportation system.

What emerges from the '09 session remains to be seen, but Kulongoski is on the right track in highlighting congestion pricing, transit, and telecommuting, and especially in exploring how to move beyond oil in transportation.


"Costlier Gas, New Hybrids Spur More To Go Green," Seattle Times, 4/21/08;

"Biofuel Use, Growth, Limited By Costs, Technology," Seattle Times, 4/19/08;

"Plugged In: The End Of The Oil Age," World Wildlife Fund, 4/2/08;

"Metro Portland: The I-5 Bridge Tolls For Thee," Cascadia Prospectus, 1/23/08.


April 23, 2008

Central Puget Sound Growth Management: Goals Versus Reality

The gulf between plans for regional urban density and the reality of dreaded "sprawl" is widening in Central Puget Sound, writes former Washington State Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald in Crosscut today. The Puget Sound Regional Council is poised tomorrow to approve Vision 2040, its updated growth plan. It predicts another 1.7 million people (the size of metro Portland, Oregon) will move to our four counties between 2000 and 2040. To protect the environment and limit traffic congestion, the elected officials and staff of PSRC propose ways to funnel most new residents to the close-in "metropolitan cities" of Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Tacoma and Bremerton, plus 14 adjacent "core cities" such as Auburn, Redmond, Federal Way, Lakewood, Tukwila and unincorporated Silverdale.

But things aren't working out as planned. MacDonald comprehensively reviewed 2000-2007 population growth data for the region on a city-by-city basis, and found far more newcomers than hoped for are moving to our region's edges rather than its core, and that compared to the 1990s, the first- and second-ring target cities are now drawing a smaller percentage of population growth. If the trend continues, so will pressure on our natural lands, habitat, water and air quality. And traffic, already a huge concern, will worsen.

MacDonald reports that while Vision 2040 calls for 32 percent of Puget Sound newcomers to reside in the first-ring "metropolitan cities," only 13 percent complied from 2000 to 2007. The second-ring "core cities" were supposed to draw 21 percent of the newbies but again, only 13 percent complied. In the 90s, the same 19 cities drew 18 percent of the newcomers, so the 13 percent figure infers we're backsliding on density, according to MacDonald.

Where exactly are people settling in now, in greater numbers than planners would like? Mostly at the edges of the region, where housing prices are decidedly lower; places like Monroe, Arlington, Marysville, Dupont and Bonney Lake. (Those last two are respectively south and southeast off the regional map above, left). And in towns such as Sammamish, Duvall and Mill Creek, which while not cheap by any means, are at least more affordable than pricey Seattle and Bellevue.

As a metropolitan and regional transportation planning agency the PSRC by federal mandate must try to lay out goals and suggest strategies for managing growth. Vision 2040 is an ambitious plan with a bar set appropriately high. But the PSRC has never had decision-making authority. That's left to state, county and local lawmakers, and the swirling profusion of councils, boards and agencies overseeing transportation, growth management and economic development.

To abate the worrisome trend he sees, MacDonald prescribes development of beefier policies for affordable housing, better public schools and better bus transit in popular corridors. He also highlights the PSRC's own suggestion for unfied regional governance on Puget Sound water quality improvements, thus unavoidably also calling the obervant reader's attention to his own vocal role in advocating regional governance for roads and transit.

But no matter what exhortations and incentives are offered, high costs for single-family homes and the proliferation of family-unfriendly apartments and condominiums in first-ring Puget Sound cities - plus rapid urbanization in the second ring - will continue to drive many newcomers to the region's outskirts. Right now, that means longer commutes, more greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and more traffic congestion. Not exactly a recipe for environmental quality and sustainability.

Regional governance on transportation remains a hot-button issue in Puget Sound. Some zealous commentators see the idea as a nefarious plot by business and Republican interests to torpedo light rail. This is as foolish as the belief that any one transit mode provides the silver bullet to slay traffic congestion. Regional transportation governance has been recommended by two successive state blue-ribbon panels under two Democratic governors (most recently here) and all but endorsed in a recent state performance audit under a Democratic state auditor. Democratic-sponsored legislation for regional transportation governance passed the Democratic-majority state senate last year before stalling in the state house.

True, regional transportation decision-making doesn't by itself guarantee enactment of the right solutions to traffic congestion. But an elected regional transportation decision-making board would provide a crucial framework for coordinated, decisive actions to ration our limited peak-hour road capacity, to fully fund crucial road safety projects, to pay for operations and maintenance, to grow transit, and to incent other alternatives to single-occupant vehicles. These are just the kind of on-the-ground approaches needed to tame snarled traffic as newcomers keep arriving, and the outward expansion of the region documented by MacDonald continues.

Whether regional transportation governance flies or not, elected officials will need to muster a lot of political courage to address growth's effects on mobility. Puget Sound needs to expand time-variable highway tolling, plus form financial partnerships with union pension funds and developers, deploy more new commuter rail service, and create more robust incentives for paratransit and telecommuting. Suburban park-and-ride lots need to be developed into future-facing hubs with robust intermodal connections and re-charging stations for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

As in all other regions our size or larger, the tab for must-have transportation capital projects runs well into the billions, to which must be added ongoing operations and maintenance costs. Just as the solutions are multiple, so are the ways we'll pay: time, money, and adaptation. We're seeing that many newcomers to the region would rather adapt their travel habits and costs to less central, less clustered and less expensive homes. Policy-makers, while still encouraging density, need to understand that countervailing tendency, and more fully address its implications for regional mobility.


April 28, 2008

Steady Progress On Congestion Pricing, Tolling

Suppose electricity was free, even at hours of peak usage. Think your power supply would be reliable, then? Exactly. Now apply the same common-sense approach to highway capacity.

Or consider the Environmental Defense Fund's Transportation Director Michael Replogle, who writes in the Washington Post:

Congestion pricing may be controversial to some people, but it's inevitable. Using tolls simply to build more roads is a costly way to end up with even more traffic and pollution....Done right, congestion pricing can boost the efficiency of our existing roads, raise revenue to invest in transit, and reduce pollution that causes asthma, cancer, heart disease, impaired lung development and global warming....In the long run, congestion pricing is the only effective and economically and politically viable solution to the chronic and growing gridlock in our nation's largest cities.

Support for road pricing isn't isolated. At all. A "survey of surveys" published by Johanna Zmud in the scholarly journal Tolling finds broad support for congestion pricing. (See especially the summary chart on p. 33).

Now the place that gave birth to road rage is getting in on the act. The L.A. Times reports the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will turn carpool lanes on the 10 and 210 freeways in the San Gabriel Valley into electronically-tolled High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes by year-end 2010, with tolls varying according to time of day and traffic levels. This is one example of so-called "congestion pricing," also known as variable tolling, or time-variable tolling.

LA's commitment comes in return for $200 million-plus from the U.S. Department of Transportation for 60 high-capacity buses and improvements to light rail.

It's part of the department's Urban Partnerships Program to encourage expanded transit and "congestion pricing," together.

NYC's Loss Is LA's Gain

LA's access to the federal funds came after the New York General Assembly sank a cordon pricing proposal from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

That would have garnered an Urban Partnerships grant of more than $300 million.

More from The Times:

"This is a great opportunity to think outside the box and to try something that has been tested around the world and has worked," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (ed.-pictured at right), a member of the MTA board.

"Part of the reason that Los Angeles has not been able to grapple with gridlock is because we've been unable to make the tough decisions."

More SoCal, Oregon, Washington State

LA's decision to move ahead with its first attempt at pricing some of its highways comes only weeks after Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski announced he'd be pushing for congestion pricing in metro Portland as part of a comprehensive transportation package he'll present to the state legislature in January, 2009. A spokesperson for the Governor indicates the I-5 crossing of the Columbia River exemplifies where he'd like to see congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing is already in place on I-15 and the South Bay Expressway in San Diego, plus State Route 91 in Orange County. Further north in the West Coast corridor, a four-year congestion pricing pilot project begins on a nine-mile stretch of State Route 167 in south suburban Seattle this week. The Seattle Times reports this morning that officials are also considering the possibility of eventually adding HOT lanes to I-90, I-405 and the I-5 express lanes. With the special lanes on 167 to open in six days, more than 9,000 motorists have already signed up for electronic tolling accounts. Tolls will range from 50 cents to $9 depending on real-time congestions levels. Buses will use the lanes free of charge, as will cars with two or more passengers (drivers will cover their transponders). The Times:

Washington state's latest highway experiment can't begin soon enough for John Mastandrea, a real-estate developer who takes Highway 167 on his commute to Seattle. "When I leave in the morning, it's before 5 a.m., so it's about 25 minutes," the Auburn resident says. "But going home in the afternoon, it's an hour to an hour and a half. You can imagine the brain damage, sitting in traffic."

...As for the future, Paula Hammond, state transportation secretary, said she doesn't foresee another gas-tax increase, so more tolling will be needed to maintain or expand highways. A logical next HOT-lane extension would be I-405, according to Bruce Agnew, of the Seattle-based Cascadia Center think tank. Those lanes could connect to Highway 167 and generate funds that in turn could help pay for widening I-405, he said. "I suspect that people would be willing to pay top dollar to get through that choke point," he said.

The SR 167 HOT lane tolling system will be de-activated between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m., so solo drivers can use them free then without even worrying about covering their transponders. The Washington State Department of Transportation notes at its blog that it will be providing running updates at its SR 167 web site on average HOT lane speeds, usage and toll levels.

There's more congestion pricing coming to Puget Sound. Pending expected state legislative authorization by September 30, 2009 of specific time variable tolls on the State Route 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington, between Seattle and the Eastside business centers of Bellevue and Redmond, another USDOT Urban Partnerships grant will be dispensed. It will total $138 million for the new SR 520 tolling project and will spring loose another $3.5 million in U.S. DOT transit funds for the region. The SR 520 tolling project will not only tame jammed rush-hour traffic on the bridge, it is hoped, but also help fund a vital replacement of the aged and unsafe bridge, the true costs of which will likely exceed $4 billion. As SR 520 congestion pricing begins, it is likely the legislature will also authorize it on the parallel I-90 floating bridge.

Fred Hiatt's Take

The approach is rapidly becoming part of the national conversation on regional growth, traffic congestion and the environment. Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, though also supporting federal gas tax hikes which others regard as low-yield and politically bedeviled, nonetheless highlights the viability of congestion pricing. Hiatt writes:

The reality is that road pricing is inevitable. It won't be a panacea, and the administration has unfairly burdened a good idea by supporting it while refusing to increase other revenue sources for transportation. The D.C. study showed that road pricing doesn't necessarily solve the revenue problem. Tolls on Maryland's intercounty connector (ICC), for example, should keep traffic flowing, but they won't come close to covering construction costs.

But congestion pricing is working in London, Stockholm and Singapore, and variable-rate tolls are coming to Washington on three projects already: new lanes on part of the Beltway in Virginia, new and converted lanes on Interstates 95 and 395 in Virginia and the entirely new ICC in Maryland. Tyler Duvall, acting U.S. undersecretary for transportation policy, says...global experience shows that road pricing is far more popular once it's implemented than in anticipation, when many people just don't believe it can work. "This is not an easy idea to sell," he admits. "But it's so much better than the alternative." Something to think about while you're sitting, at no charge, on the Beltway tonight.

Tolling, Regional Taxes & Pension Funds

Hiatt is right that tolling and specifically congestion pricing will not alone address transportation funding needs. But federal and state gas taxes are increasingly ineffective sources, as related revenues flat-line and then drop due to increased fuel efficiency. And political prospects for higher gas taxes continue to shrink with the record run-up in U.S. gas prices. To supplement tolling revenue and get needed road, bridge and transit projects built, will require increases in state and especially regional taxes and fees, plus tolling and innovative financial partnerships. That could include coinvestment from union pension funds, now being eyed by legislators and Governor Rick Perry as potential backers of more toll roads to cut Texas-sized congestion in the economically-vibrant Lone Star State.

Tolling & Transit

Tolling revenues should never be used, even partially, to try to diminish a deficit in a state's general fund budget, as was proposed in New Jersey. Money raised via tolling must go back into transportation and transportation only. Road users expect no less, and they're right. But that doesn't have to mean roads and bridges only. In growing metro regions such as Puget Sound, some share of tolling revenues should definitely go to transit - in each case, within the same corridor where those tolls are collected. That's especially appropriate where new variable tolling strategies are being implemented, which allow transit and carpools to use priced lanes for no charge.

Avoiding Pitfalls

One other thing. Every now and then the idea surfaces - as in a recently completed, Puget Sound-focused study - that not only could major state and federal highways be tolled, but so too could major arterial streets in a metro region; or even every mile travelled by passenger vehicles, on any road or street. Cars would be tracked with dashboard-mounted devices, Global Positioning Systems and cellular technology. Some routes would cost more than others. This is a provocative idea worthy of discussion, but in the end it's simply too draconian to toll every mile driven, or arterial streets. Not because of privacy concerns, which can be overhyped, but because of the sheer overreach. Nothing like this is going to happen in Puget Sound for the next several decades, at least. Wherever officials advance what I'll call saturation tolling, they'd undercut public support for the more judicious approach now gaining traction - variable pricing on highways.

About April 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Cascadia Prospectus in April 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

March 2008 is the previous archive.

May 2008 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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