Seattle’s Traffic Woes Require More Focus, Say Major Employers

A greater private sector role in commute trip reduction is essential

Seattle's Traffic Woes Require More Focus, Say Major Employers
17 major employers and former Washington Governor Chris Gregoire are calling for a major private-public effort to ease peak-hour traffic congestion in Central Puget Sound. Photo: Sounder Bruce.

Seattle region transit backers last weekend celebrated the extension of Sound Transit’s light rail system from downtown north to the University District, and state officials trimmed express lane tolling hours on I-405 on the Eastside. But more transit and a piecemeal regional tolling policy won’t be enough to move workers from homes to jobs and back, and freight to and from ports as the Puget Sound region continues its fast-paced growth in coming decades.

Major employers are increasingly saying that stronger system capacity management and a greater private sector role in commute trip reduction are essential. Those two priorities came through loud and clear last week in the release of a new regional transportation strategy by Challenge Seattle.

The group includes former Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, plus Alaska Airlines, Amazon, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Boeing, Chateau St. Michelle, Costco, Expedia, Chase Bank, Madrona Venture Group, Microsoft, Nordstrom, PATH, Puget Sound Energy, REI, Starbucks, Weyerhaeuser and Zillow.

Key Challenge Seattle recommendations on transportation included:

  • an intense focus on heavily-congested I-5 in Central Puget Sound through real-time data-sharing, chokepoint-easing projects and the corridor’s melding into a coordinated regional approach. The report says, “Day after day, we see the impact of our current transportation network’s vulnerabilities to disruption on I-5. These failures are approaching a crisis level. While the recently enacted state transportation funding package is valuable in many areas, it included no money to address problems with this critically important section of I-5.”

  • A closer look at a utility-based model to pricing of inevitably constrained road capacity in Central Puget Sound, based on miles traveled and quite possibly, the efficiency of mode used. That could mean tougher consequences fiscally for solo drivers to work.

  • The 17 major companies also want to build on existing commute trip reduction programs to reduce the number of employees who commute in single occupant vehicles to 35 percent by 2035. To accomplish this they’re collaborating with organizations like the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and the Washington Roundtable. Challenge Seattle says it will track drive-alone rates for major employers and share information on which programs cut the rate best. Almost 70 percent of commuters drive alone to work now in the region.

State lawmakers last year passed a $16 billion transportation package that included completing the new 520 bridge and State Route 167. The package was partially paid for by an 11.9-cent gas tax increase phased in over two years.

It was a good start but more is required, said Roundtable President Steve Mullin.

“Given the population growth projections particularly in the central Puget Sound, the projects in the package are essential, but there’s going to need to be additional and extensive work done through regional and local efforts,” he said.

The Seattle region had the sixth-worst traffic congestion in the nation, according to a 2015 traffic scorecard by Kirkland-based traffic analytics company INRIX.

Billions Annually In Congestion Costs

According to the 2015 Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Scorecard, traffic congestion in 2014 in the Seattle metro area costs around $3.3 billion annually. That’s little better than the $3.4 billion reported for Seattle by TTI for 2004.

Even in the transit-friendly Seattle region, commuters mainly drive solo to and from work. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey (ACS) show that nearly 7 of 10 work trips in the King-Snohomish-Pierce County region, or 69 percent, were made driving alone. This was versus 9.8 percent sharing rides, 9.6 percent on transit, and 5.7 percent working from home. The Seattle region ACS data were virtually identical in 2010 although ride-sharing was more than one percent higher.

Filtering out stay-at-home workers, a 2014 paper from the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) projects that by 2040, solo work commutes in its four-county territory (add in Kitsap County to the other three) could drop to 64 percent of the mix, with ride-sharing staying steady at 9.4 percent and transit rising as high as 20.4 percent, or 1 in 5 work trips.

Yet the region is projected to grow to five million residents in 2040 from 3.8 million in 2014 and employment by almost one million.

Without stronger surface transportation management strategies in place, even the PSRC’s projected gain in transit mode share might not so easily occur. And the dramatic reduction to 2035 work trip drive-alone shares of 35 percent eyed by Challenge Seattle would be a heavier lift still.

Solo Commuters ‘Place A Greater Burden On The System’

Challenge Seattle sees a utility-style charging approach as incentivizing reduced solo driving to and from work. “Those commuting daily in single-occupancy vehicles place a greater burden on the system than those who travel infrequently, or travel via bike, or on foot, or on public transit. Should our transportation system be viewed as a public utility, like water and electricity service? Should we be charged similarly to the way we are for those utilities? With utilities, we pay a base fee for being part of the utilities network, then pay fees for our individual consumption.”

Though a utility-style user charge won’t happen anytime soon, lawmakers like Washington State Senate Transportation Committee member Sen. Ann Rivers (R-18) see it as a possible replacement for the gas tax as vehicle fuel efficiency increases and more people drive electric cars.

This year’s gas tax increase is probably the last one “we’ll be voting on,” she said. The discussion moving forward will most likely focus on charging for miles traveled, she said.

State Already Looking At Charging By The Mile

The Washington State Transportation Department in a 2013 Toll Operation Review also suggested a close look at the utility-based approach. It is currently being studied by the Washington State Transportation Commission at the direction of the state legislature, and a state pilot project could ensue within a year or two. A Puget Sound test occurred in the mid-2000s, and Oregon is hip-deep in assessing the approach too.

Consistency is essential when charging drivers for road use, whether it’s a utility-based method or through express tolls, said John Niles, founder and president of Global Telematics.

“There’s no doubt that when you toll something it causes some diversion, so you need to toll everything and get your diversion under control,” he said.

Currently, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the SR 520 Bridge, and portions of SR 167 and I-405 are tolled.

WSDOT also has authorization to toll the future Highway 99 Tunnel. A 2011 WSDOT study discussed tolling the I-5 express lanes between downtown Seattle and Northgate. And WSDOT’s “Gateway” project involving better linkage of SR 509, SR 167 and I-5 also specifically calls for express toll lanes on I-5 between Tacoma and Seattle, though WSDOT Communications Specialist Emily Pace said at the moment there are no plans to seek authorization for that.


Writing and reporting by TJ Martinell and Matt Rosenberg.

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