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Is Washington’s traffic congestion problem unsolvable?

Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar has come under fire for recent remarks on traffic congestion and WSDOT’s role in managing the state transportation system, prompting one legislator to demand his resignation. Others say that keeping traffic flowing on the roads will require different approaches based on density and geography, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

In an Aug. 1 letter, Rep. Phil Fortunato (R-31) criticized Millar for remarks made at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Joint Policy (AASHTO) Committee meeting. According to the AASHTO Journal, Millar said: “we  talk about traffic congestion as an issue, but it is actually a symptom of a larger problem – and the problem is we don’t provide affordable housing and transportation solutions. Congestion is not a failure on the state DOT’s part – it is a problem we simply cannot solve.”

Because of that, Millar said the state agency is “looking for a path forward in a congested world,” adding that increased road capacity “isn’t the answer.”

However, Fortunato wrote in his letter that “if you can’t do it, or even worse give up trying, then you are abdicating your responsibility to our state’s citizens who depend on you to do your job. If you feel it is indeed “too hard” to rededicate yourself and agency to its core mission of building, constructing and maintaining roads and make relieving congestion a priority, I would ask you to step down and make room for someone who can.”

In an Aug. 2 letter to Fortunato, Millar defended his remarks, including his assertion that the state would need $115 billion to eliminate congestion, which would require a $2.20-$2.50 per-gallon increase in the state gas tax. It’s a point he first raised in his State of Transportation speech during this year’s legislative session while highlighting a “disconnect” between transportation and housing.

Washington’s gas tax is already the second highest in the nation. In 2015 the state legislature approved a $.12 increase to the state gas tax to fund the $16 billion Connecting Washington transportation package. By 2027, 70 percent of gas tax revenue generated will be dedicated to paying off existing bonds.

Millar wrote that “this (congestion) is not a failure of government, this is acknowledging that economic, geographic, environmental, social and other realities make a new approach to transportation investment necessary.”

Fortunato told Lens that “You’re telling me you (Millar) can’t do anything else to relieve congestion without spending $115 billion? Fix the bottlenecks. You don’t need to put four lanes all the way on I-5 in order to get what you’re trying to achieve. You need to fix the bottlenecks.”

Earlier this year, Fortunato introduced a bill that would have redirected the state sales tax on motor vehicles to pay for more roads.

Former Bellevue City Councilmember Kevin Wallace told Lens that Millar’s statements on capacity increase makes sense with Seattle, because it’s “at a level of density and geographic constraint where adding new capacity is just not realistic anymore. It’s more cost effective to try and solve the problem with light rail and bus service and new technology than expanding road capacity. But everywhere else that’s not true.”

He added the notion that congestion is unsolvable “completely ignores every other area of the state that has lower density and needs increased capacity. Every legislator outside the city of Seattle should be concerned about it.”

It’s also “asinine” to argue that increased capacity elsewhere will only create induced demand, he said. “Imagine what I-405 would be like if we didn’t add the hot lane.”

Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost told Lens “WSDOT is out of touch with its own job description. The direction it has been going over the last few years should be very concerning.”

Like Wallace, she says added capacity is needed and can work. She points to the peak-hour shoulder lane added to a section of I-405 between state Route 527 and I-5. After it was added, WSDOT reported higher vehicle volumes and improved traffic flow.

“That is latent demand from people who are not being served by the current supply that we have,” she said. “We are not meeting current demand, so it is completely inappropriate to talk about induced demand.”

At the AASHTO meeting, Millar said “our biggest source of capacity in the system is reducing demand” by “getting more people to telework, travel at off-peak hours, and by making off-system travel improvements such as adding bike lanes changes demand on system.” WSDOT’s 2018 State of Transportation plan calls for “practical solutions” that include dynamic tolling.

Wallace says “if you want to get people off the road, you need to provide a new tool for those low-density areas. We need to start looking at new technologies that are provided by the private sector and can be implemented quickly.”

That includes car-sharing and ridesharing, which can service lower density communities and free up buses to serve high-density, high-demand routes. Electric and driverless vehicle technology can also play a role, he added.

“We need to be working on how to take technologies like that and allow them to be more usable to commuters in suburbia. The discussion is about not replacing but creating a regional plan that embraces these new technologies and figures out how to integrate them best in the system that we’re creating.”

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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