During this year’s legislative session, some state lawmakers put forward a proposal that would have fundamentally altered statewide transportation policy by giving the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) final say over whether the legislature could fund a project.
Although the companion bills containing the measure, HB 2688 and SB 6398, failed to clear their respective original committees after a public hearing, Sen. Curtis King (R-14) says the proposal and the underlying anti-driving, pro-transit philosophy behind it hasn’t gone away.
“It is truly unbelievable where this bill wanted to take us,” King said during a session on the topic at the Washington Policy Center’s April 15 virtual summit. “(It’s) a real threat to our statewide transportation system and our way of life. It will be back, and we have to be ready.”
Other aspects of the proposals speak to a significant disconnect between what lawmakers believe is WSDOT’s purpose. While King and others believe the agency is charged with improving traffic congestion for vehicle drivers, one of the agency’s current goals is to reduce driving. WSDOT Deputy Secretary Keith Metcalf was among those testifying in support of HB 2688 during its Jan. 28 public hearing.
Under the two bills, all state transportation projects would be reviewed by a group composed of members from various state agencies. WSDOT projects would have to meet several new criteria, while removing congestion relief and mobility from its objectives. WSDOT would then have been able to use a discretionary score to decide whether the legislature could fund a project.
With congestion relief and mobility no longer a priority under that new protocol, King said that if the bills had passed then WSDOT-approved projects moving forward would expand alternative transportation such as transit, light rail and bike lanes.
This stands in contrasts with what Washington Policy Center Transportation Director Mariya Frost believes should be the state’s transportation philosophy: “People getting to the places they want to go – the way they want to get there.”
While WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar has previously said that congestion relief is “unsolvable,” Frost said transportation “solutions should primarily measure and reduce traffic congestion rather than managing it. We need to have transportation policy prioritize mobility that is safe and efficient for everyone, not a policy that protects mass transit at all costs.”
King said he believes that “WDOT won’t try to do anything to mitigate congestion. They want to force everybody onto a bus or light rail. And that’s their solution – that’s their only solution.”
However, even transit proponents such as Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff have admitted that the $54 billion in bus rapid transit and light rail expansions via ST3 won’t reduce traffic. That was the conclusion of a 2019 study by urban policy analyst Wendell Cox. A similar conclusion was reached by Bob Pishue with the Eastside Transportation Association. In a 2019 analysis of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s (PSRC) draft Vision 2050, Pishue argued that “though people will drive fewer miles on average, they will spending more time in traffic. This means that despite transportation officials spending billions more of our money on mass transit and transit-oriented development, than on roads, we should simply expect more traffic congestion in our future.”
PSRC’s Vision 2050 estimates that even under the most optimistic forecasts, transit ridership will increase by only one percent.
Among the findings in Cox’s study’s was that vehicles provide 19 times more access to jobs within a 30-minute driving distance in Seattle metro than transit does. While transit advocates note that Seattle’s bus ridership has increased in recent years, Cox said at the April 15 virtual summit that it’s one of the few metro areas in the country where this is the case. He attributes that to Amazon’s enormous footprint in downtown where 48 percent of workers use transit.
However, once outside downtown Seattle, bus ridership shrinks to 9.3 percent, and just 3.5 percent of workers in the entire central Puget Sound region use transit.
Although Millar has argued in the past that added capacity will create “induced demand,” Cox disagrees. “You cannot reduce traffic congestion without expanding auto capacity.”