Seattle metro’s traffic congestion isn’t a problem that will be rectified soon or with a single fix. However, building and real estate industry members say there are steps regional and local lawmakers can take to both gradually reduce the strain on roads and the hours commuters are spending on regional interstates that resemble parking lots.
In addition to increasing the housing inventory through land-use and zoning reform, industry leaders also say various modes of mass transit are needed. That can’t happen, however, until residential density is increased in areas where neighborhood groups or local governments often stymie housing development. What’s more, the density also needs to happen at existing transit facilities, not ones planned decades in the future.
“There’s this vision of building up and adding transit-orientated development,” SoundBuilt Homes Chief Operating Officer Kurt Wilson said. “That works in areas like the Bellevue-Seattle markets of the world. However, it’s very costly because we are doing it very reactively rather than proactively.”
Windermere Chief Economist Matthew Gardner points to the failed passage of Forward Thrust in the 1970s, a series of King County bond proposals for rapid transit. Had they passed, they would have obtained $900 million in federal funding. At the time, King County’s population was approximately 1.6 million; today, it is around 2.1 million.
“If we had implemented and improved them, we would have a system as sustainable as BART is in San Francisco,” Gardner said. “What happened thereafter…is the region itself is trying to attract as much business possible. So now we’re in a situation where we’re saying ‘Ah! Oh!’ It’s a problem that could have been fixed 40 years ago.”
Although some have proposed expanding the urban growth boundaries (UGA) for Seattle metro counties, MainStreet Property Group LLC CEO Eric Campbell told Lens “We don’t need to go outside of the UGA (urban growth boundary) if we were to take bold policy steps.”
Some transportation experts have argued that the route to better driving times is by expanding infrastructure via added lanes. They point to recent data from the Washington State Department of Transportation showing improved conditions along a segment of I-405 where a peak-use shoulder lane has been added.
However, the central Puget Sound’s geography will make that difficult elsewhere, Gardner said. “In Houston, you could build more roads, but we can’t do that. Seattle is one of the only cities where the number of lanes on a major interstate freeway goes down and not up. And why is that? You can’t make it wider.”
Along with more housing, the solution to bad traffic is “transit and the ability to effectively and efficiently move people between A and B,” he added. “We need to embrace mass transit by improving and expanding it. What’s going to happen is quite interesting. To buy off on using mass transit, that will only work if one particular thing happens; they (commuters) are sitting in traffic in a single occupancy car, and a bus goes by them. And then and only then will they begin to think of using it. If they can get to their homes to where they need to be in 30 minutes, they will embrace mass transit.”
That won’t happen until more Seattle metro neighborhoods allow more homes per acre as older houses are replaced, Campbell said. Limiting the number of units may help local arterials, but the cost is felt once residents head to work on the highway.
“When you have a critical mass, you can get transit solutions to work,” he said. “It’s really tough to fight these entrenched individuals who have what they want, and they don’t want to let anyone else into their neighborhood.”
The view is shared by Wilson. “People complain about growth and builders and say developers are bad people because we’re ‘adding to congestion’ by putting a new product out here. But they don’t realize that somebody had to put their house there, too. Their house was done prior to authorizing language in the Growth Management Act, where impact fees are to be collected.”
Another way to increase mass transit use is by encouraging more residential housing near existing facilities and “not just light rail, because we could be waiting years,” Gardner said. “It’s very difficult for a developer to get his company to buy off on land closer to a future (transit) site when it’s not going to be (open) until 2024.”
It’s something also advocated by former Master Builders Association president and Runstad Center Advisory Board Chair Peter Orser. “When you think about the cost to society for that traffic, instead of a $53 billion ST3…a better approach would be to have $25 billion for ST3, but $25 billion to create housing opportunities that are closer in, that don’t require as much infrastructure investment.”
“Affordable housing, education, transportation, sewer, water – they are all forms of infrastructure,” he added. “If you don’t have all of those, there are reciprocating costs on the flip side.”