While some state officials have argued that traffic congestion is unsolvable, Bellevue real estate developer Kemper Freeman has released a plan that seeks to reduce gridlock in the coming years with a combination of infrastructure investments and autonomous vehicle technology.
Called “Mobility 21” and unveiled during an April 21 webinar hosted by the Eastside Transportation Association (ETA), the plan advocates for additional freeway lanes and against further light rail development.
The legislature is currently tackling the issue of driverless vehicles operating on public roads, having recently passed SSB 5460 that would create a legal definition for state law. Freeman said at the webinar that he believes self-driving vehicles on public roads aren’t that far off and envisions using the technology for vanpools to provide relatively cheap rider fares ($2), shifting roughly half a million people out of single occupancy vehicles. And unlike normal cars that sit in parking-and-ride lots, these self-driving vehicles can operate throughout the day, which will “get us out from under this congestion cloud we’re living with,” he said.
The plan comes as work on a potential $15 billion Forward Washington transportation package may stall in the legislature due to gridlock over interconnected legislation and opposition to some of its provisions from Governor Jay Inslee’s state Office of Financial Management.
ST3 planned for a regional light rail system throughout the Puget Sound area, in addition to bus rapid transit (BRT), and commuter trains. That said, Chuck Collins – who previously served as the director of King County Metro Transit in the late 1970s – believes light rail will remain popular in Seattle but is skeptical certain Eastside projects will survive, including the Kirkland-Issaquah line.
ETA Chairman Bill Eager said during the webinar that even with billions in additional investments, Sound Transit isn’t projected to shift transit’s share of total traffic compared to vehicles.
Eager noted that the mobility plan “won’t tear anything out, and we won’t stop anything that’s under construction…that has a federal approval already, but we wouldn’t go any further than that,” adding that it would likely require legislative action to halt future projects.
While that may seem a lofty goal, Eager believes “it’s such a compelling waste of money we hope there’s going to be political pressure to stop it.”
“It is the most expensive amount of money for nothing in the history of the world,” Freeman said. “That’s a fact that the public doesn’t now right now. Sound Transit loves to say…’this isn’t the best plan, but it’s the only plan’. The public is going to hear about this plan.”
Though many employees have transitioned to remote work in the past year due to the state-imposed lockdowns, Mobility 21 reflects long-term confidence in the use of office buildings. In fact, Amazon plans to add a total of 25,000 workers in Bellevue, where it plans to build several new corporate offices, while Facebook also recently bought REI’s unused headquarters in the city.
Collins said the cause of congestion in King County is that approximately one million people get in cars and drive to work or school every morning. “What do we have to do to capture half of those? What would it take?”
He said that a self-driving vanpool could easily operate on a $2 fare, “one that’s actually cheaper than most of public transit now.” Other advantages are that “you don’t ride with 40 other people. The thing delivers you not five blocks from where you work. It delivers you to where you work.”
Mobility 21 also calls for converting high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes into general purpose lanes, though the plan does include some form of tolling to finance new infrastructure.
“We can’t totally eliminate congestion,” Eager said. “That’s just built into human nature. But we can certainly make it a lot better.”