Heavy Traffic At Core Of District 1 State Senate Race Between Palumbo And Wirth

Residents of the City of Bothell here enjoy a July 4th parade, but during the workweek are all too often stuck in traffic going to and from their jobs. Both candidates for the open State Senate District 1 seat say transportation system improvements are key. Photo: City of Bothell, Washington.

Washington State Legislative District 1 includes Bothell, parts of Kirkland and Mountlake Terrace, plus Brier and the unincorporated areas of Maltby, High Bridge and Cathcart. The almost 144,000 residents largely work in office jobs, are married and usually commute alone, according to U.S. Census data. The mean household income is $102,804, but that doesn’t buy anyone much relief from choked traffic, especially on Interstate 405, and State Routes 522 and 9. Upgraded transportation infrastructure has emerged as a priority in the contest for the open District 1 Senate seat, between Democrat Guy Palumbo and Republican Mindie Wirth.

Capacity, Engineering, Parking Problems

Candidates and local officials point to several transportation problems. These include poor regional planning, insufficient arterial and highway capacity to keep up with the district’s growth, and a middling transit network made worse by scant parking.

Palumbo and Wirth emerged as general election finalists after both besting three-term State Rep. Luis Moscoso (D-1) in the Senate primary. They are competing to take the spot of retiring Democratic incumbent Rosemary McAuliffe. 

“We need the next senator to be able to work with both sides of the aisle in Olympia and get the types of capital and transportation projects that our district and city need,” Bothell Mayor Andy Rheaume told Lens. “Bothell is a city that is growing rapidly…and we need leadership from the state to deal with the effects of growth.”

Rheaume added, “There is a lack of integration on the Eastside 405 corridor. It’s a patchwork of rail and bus but there is no cohesive plan to increase mobility from north to south.” As a result, he said, surface streets in Bothell and Woodinville face heavy traffic, and motorists must deal with nettlesome chokepoints on I-405 north of Bothell, and at the merge of SR 522 and I-405, in both directions.

“Whoever gets elected needs to support the light rail system for sure,” in order to beef up transit service running north and south, Mountlake Terrace Mayor Jerry Smith told Lens. The city is just across the King County border, in Snohomish County, and a transit hub.

Wirth, of Bothell, has worked as a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft for the past eight years. She was legislative and advocacy chair for her children’s elementary school Parent Teacher Association, and is First Vice President and co-President Elect of the Northshore school district Parent Teacher Student Association Council. She has three children aged 10, 7 and 4.

Palumbo, of Maltby, owns a dog boarding business. He has served the past five years as Chair of the Snohomish County Planning Commission, and nearly three years as Fire Commissioner for Snohomish District 7. Palumbo is also Director of “OneBothell,” a nonprofit focusing on transforming golf course land along the Sammamish River into a park.

Palumbo told Lens Puget Sound’s transportation system is “inadequate for a world-class region. Some problems…involve the balkanization of the transit agencies and…that we don’t approach transportation from a holistic view, of how to increase mobility,” he said.

Differences On Roads Funding

Palumbo said the gas tax is “declining as a source of revenue” and lawmakers should closely monitor results of a new state pilot program to test out the so-called road user charge, or pay-by-the-mile tax, which could eventually replace the gas tax. However, privacy concerns will likely be a roadblock to adoption, he said.

Wirth said, “I do not support a vehicle mileage tax. It is invasive, regressive and will hurt business that depends on vehicle transportation.”

Planning For The Future

Both candidates accent the need for the district to prepare for the future.

Palumbo said parts of Snohomish County are “booming with population growth,” and another 230,000 residents are expected by 2035. “We have to address the problems on 405, Route 522 and Route 9,” he added.

Getting Real About Park-and-Ride Needs

To prepare, Palumbo said he prefers to add an additional general purpose lane on I-405 north of Bothell. The I-405 corridor from Lynnwood to Renton also needs dedicated-lane bus rapid transit (BRT) fed by commuter stations with “massive” park-and-ride lots, Palumbo added.

“We have to give people a legitimate option to get out of a single-occupant vehicles, and right now they don’t have that,” said Palumbo. He added, the district should follow Mountlake Terrace’s model of the “in-line” BRT station embedded on I-5 at 236th Street S.W.

Looking at the broader scope of regional planning, Wirth said, “We need to make sure we are balancing growth with the necessary infrastructure.” The state is currently doing the opposite, Wirth added, where growth comes first and then adjustments are made later.

Wirth said the district needs more carpooling, bus rapid transit and park-and-rides. “A lot of people would be willing to take a bus if they can be assured…a park-and-ride would not already be full,” said Wirth.

Different Takes On ST3

The $53.8 billion Sound Transit 3 (ST3) plan headed for a November 8 vote would build 62 new miles of light rail across Central Puget Sound and in District 1 would add BRT on SR 522. The package would require $27.7 billion in new taxes.

“I’m a little skeptical about ST3 funding park-and-rides. Some discussion has occurred that ST3 shouldn’t fund any parking facilities, to discourage cars altogether…(but) you must have a car to get around if you live in Bothell,” said Rheaume.

Wirth said she would not be voting in favor of ST3, but is not opposed to rail. “A perpetual increase in property taxes is what we (would be) essentially voting for…It should have a limit to the timeline, like a bond,” she added.

Palumbo said he does not get to vote on ST3 because he lives outside the taxing district, but the inclusion of BRT on SR 522 from I-5 to University of Washington-Bothell campus is a “welcome addition,” as is the inclusion in the package of a high-capacity transit study for future enhancements on 522. His ST3 concerns lie with implementing BRT on the 405 corridor.

“It is my understanding that the park-and-ride locations are not going to be on the spine of 405, but rather on the arterial grid. That will prevent the BRT line from being ‘in-line’ the way the Mountlake Terrace transit station (on I-5) is constructed. I have serious concerns that the current design will not be effective at fixing the problems on 405,” said Palumbo.

Palumbo said he either wants the I-405 express toll lanes to become general purpose lanes or, if not, ensure the revenue stays in the corridor to “fix chokepoints and prepare for additional capacity.” Wirth wants to restore free use of the toll lanes to vehicles with two or more passengers, less than the current three-plus requirement. She also wants to turn one toll lane back into a general purpose lane.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in August announced that higher than anticipated revenues from the express lanes is allowing for “peak use shoulder lanes” on the 1.8-mile 405 stretch between Canyon Park and Lynnwood. Slated to open next summer, this expansion would allow drivers to use the right shoulder during heavy traffic periods.

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