Washington’s housing and transportation disconnect

Construction workers and equipment
In a State of the State of Transportation presentation, Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Secretary Roger Millar warned lawmakers of a growing disconnect between transportation investments and land use policies. Some state lawmakers believe state Growth Management Act reform could help change that. Photo: WSDOT

Washington has spent roughly $12.5 billion on transportation capital projects since 2011-13, yet a lack of cohesion between transportation investments, regional housing and job locations could undermine project benefits and worsen already dismal traffic congestion.

The effects are felt worst in the Puget Sound region, which has experienced disproportionately high economic growth compared to the rest of the state. The city of Seattle currently has 58 cranes dominating its skyline, compared to just 18 in New York and 36 in Los Angeles. Since 2007, congestion on Interstate 5 has increased 76 percent, with an increase of 33 percent on Interstate 405 and a whopping 117 percent on Interstate 90. It’s a problem that state officials say they can’t build their way out of simply by adding new roads.

This situation was highlighted during  a January 8 State of the State of Transportation to the House Transportation Committee by Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Secretary Roger Millar, who advised that it’s not just new drivers on the road contributing to the problem. It is also the high cost of real estate, which means middle-income earners must commute into job centers from elsewhere.

“We have a disconnect between land use and housing and jobs and transportation,” he said. “We’re adding new jobs, but the question is, are we keeping up with affordable housing, and are we keeping up with transportation choices for the people who work at those jobs?”

“A lack of affordable housing in core areas is pushing people farther out from urban job centers,” he added. “They can’t afford to live where they work, they’re traveling longer distances, they get out to the fringe of the urban area where there are fewer transportation choices; people have to drive.”

Simply adding more lanes until traffic calms down isn’t financially feasible, according to WSDOT. The state agency estimates that to have interstate highways operate at their respective speed limits at all times would require 451 miles of new lanes – 85 percent of that in the greater Puget Sound area – and that would include in certain areas four additional lanes in each direction.

The price tag: $115 billion and a $2.20-2.50 gas tax increase.

Washingtonians already pay 69 cents per gallon in state and federal taxes. The “Connecting Washington” package passed by lawmakers in 2015 alone added 12 cents to the total price. Additionally, the state is behind a transportation investment goal of $21 billion between 2013-2022, set in a 2012 task force report. Even then, that was a low-ball estimate; the task force listed a $50 billion figure in order to fully enhance the state’s transportation system.

But that infrastructure also requires regular maintenance. Last year Millar estimated that WSDOT-managed roads would need $205 million every year, and $270 million for WSDOT bridges over the next decade.

Major new state transportation projects currently underway include:

  • The state Route 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel in downtown Seattle, slated to open in early 2019;
  • I-90 corridor improvements and added capacity near the city of Snoqualmie, between Hyak and Keechelus Dam, the downtown Spokane Viaduct and Lincoln County; and
  • I-5 corridor improvements that include repaving, repairs, and new bridges in Pierce County and Lewis County.

However, Moller says they need to take a “broader perspective, a different view of our work” by looking at the system as a whole.”

“Developers want to meet new demand,” Moller said. “But they’re relying on risk averse financing. People that invest money in development tend to invest money in development that have a track record of being successful.”

Some state lawmakers point to antiquated provisions in the state Growth Management Act as a cause for the traffic conditions. A bipartisan Senate bill proposed by Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) would have local governments adjust their planning documents when projections don’t match actual growth, which can cause misplaced transportation investments.

Loosening GMA restrictions on affordable housing options could also help, says Transportation Committee member Rep. Morgan Irwin (R-31). He told Lens that one possibility is allowing the construction of mobile home park areas such as in the city of Enumclaw, located in his district.  “This is a great way to provide low-cost, low income housing. You can add thousands of housing units in just a few months if you allow it to go in. This is an easy way to make a real change in people’s lives, but nobody’s interested in it because nobody likes mobile home parks – except for the people who live there.”

“All I’m saying is let people live in the same place that they work,” he added. “Let people work in the same place that they live. With UGA (urban growth area) restrictions, people cannot do that. It (GMA) has created this situation where men and women who work have to commute, and in areas that have almost no transit process.”

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