July 21, 2009
  

West Coast States Ramp Up Joint Transpo Agenda

Matt Rosenberg

West Coast major metro regions face growing population, plus projected increases in total vehicle miles traveled and freight volume. Traffic congestion already exacts a high toll, and without serious intervention will worsen many-fold, harming economic growth and quality of life in coming decades. That means ameliorative strategies and cross-boundary collaboration between the states are more important than ever. So, top transportation advisory panels for California, Oregon and Washington will this week hold their first-ever joint meetings, in Portland and Seattle. In a Washington State Transportation Commission press release, chair Carol Moser (below, right) says:

"These joint meetings are the first ever to occur between the West Coast commissions. These types of engagements are important for building relationships and alliances between the West Coast states. They provide the opportunity for us to partner and identify our shared transportation priorities, which we...intend to continue using as leverage in influencing our collective Congressional delegations in securing federal transportation funding for the tri-state area."

When all three commissions meet Wednesday, July 22 in Portland, one focus will be the Columbia River Crossing bridge project planned on I-5 to replace the old, dangerous and often congested twin spans connecting Clark County, Washington and Portland. The new structure will include a light rail extension, bike and pedestrian paths, and will be electronically tolled with higher rates at peak hours. The CRC project could lead to a deeper discussion of regional highway corridor tolling in metro Portland, according to some Oregon lawmakers and Portland-area planners. That approach is making inroads in metro Puget Sound, with several related state studies underway. At the Portland meeting the three commissions will also discuss the looming federal surface transportation funding re-authorization bill. The big six-year package will likely be delayed as long as 18 months from its expiration this fall, as the Obama administration and key Congressional members slog through the difficult and politically risky work of figuring out how to replace the failing federal gas tax.

For the second year running, a stopgap infusion will be required to keep solvent the federal Highway Trust Fund, which relies on the federal gas tax. A hike in the by-the-gallon tax is possible when the bill is finally re-drawn, but there is broad consensus its primacy is ending. The gas tax's ineffectiveness has been revealed after system maintenance and expansion badly lagged during four-and-a-half decades of robust traffic growth, plus related wear-and-tear. Other more recent constraints on gas tax revenues include continually improving vehicle mileage, a trend expected to accelerate with growing production of alternative-fueled vehicles.

Many innovations are likely in the new bill, including greater funding and policy emphases on transit, biking, urban density, tolling, vehicle mileage taxes, private investment, and - the West Coast state transportation commissions hope - freight mobility.

Also on the Portland agenda: federal funding for improved inter-city and high-speed rail; and a presentation on electronic tolling projects in the state of Washington. The meeting will be preceded by an informal discussion session among commission members, also open to the public.

The Thursday, July 23 meeting in Seattle between the Washington and California commissions will highlight several surface transportation priorities the two states share.

Speakers will report on tolling, public-private partnerships and freight mobility.

In this April, 2009 letter to members of their states' respective Congressional delegations, the three commissions stressed the vital economic role of West Coast goods movement and urged federal lawmakers to push for adoption of a freight account in the Federal Highway Trust Fund to be used solely for freight projects. They also sought support for dedicated federal funds to rehabilitate the interstate system, and to match state and local freight infrastructure investments; for increased federal funding to improve rail container freight services, easing highway freight loads; and for federal tax and investment policies to boost public-private partnerships in big freight infrastructure projects.

On the diminishing effectiveness of the gas tax and how to replace it over time, the three commissions in another letter this year to their Congressional delegations, wrote:

Drastically fluctuating oil prices have affected almost every transportation mode and have made fuel taxes a less than reliable revenue source. Drivers are reducing fuel consumption by switching their principal vehicle, driving less or choosing more efficient vehicles. The combined impact of increased costs, declining revenue from the fuel tax, and growing awareness of the causes and impacts of climate change, compels a reassessment of how transportation infrastructure is publicly financed. As you begin work on developing reauthorization of the federal surface transportation act, we hope that you will consider encouraging states to develop alternative transportation funding approaches to supplement, and perhaps ultimately replace the gas tax. Two recently completed studies demonstrated the feasibility of such an alternative transportation funding approach: a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) based fee system.

Oregon and Washington have both completed landmark VMT (a.k.a. mileage-based user fee) pilot projects, and a major national pilot project funded by the federal government is now underway.

One view heard in capitals is that states should ultimately implement any VMT but the feds should help set the stage with further funding for advanced research and testing, and development of technical and procedural best practices. It would also fall to Congress to set a schedule for eventually requiring on-board GPS units on all new vehicles, and for the retrofitting of older vehicles with GPS. Without that, nothing much can happen.

Tracking of drivers in pilot projects has been limited to several different zones in a metro region, with higher prices in those which are more central, and congested.

As the technology evolves it may become possible - and despite inevitable controversy at the outset of public dialog, desirable - to track the exact streets, roads and highways taken by drivers, and to calibrate charges in part by real-time congestion levels on specific arteries and by vehicle fuel efficiency, in addition to distance traveled. VMT administrators will need to ensure the public is confident that driver route data, whatever its specificity, is secure. Both the Oregon and Puget Sound pilot projects showed - among other things - that most users developed trust their privacy rights were being respected.

Other proof points will be important. System users who've paid and paid gas taxes and seen congestion still worsen will also want "return on investment" guarantees that VMT revenues collected will yield real improvements in roadway mobility; in improving other modes such as transit, walking and biking; and in a region's transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

The joint West Coast state transportation commissions are likely to raise the VMT issue again as the federal surface transportation bill reauthorization comes closer. Meanwhile, Washington state's Joint Transportation Committee is examining the approach closely in a broader review of future funding strategies.

Here's the agenda for the Thursday, July 23 meeting in Seattle.

RELATED - "State Rep. Carlyle: New Era Of Transpo Funding, Strategy, Looms," Cascadia Prospectus, 7/2/09

1:18 PM |

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