Tuesday, October 31, 2006

More Than a Decent Proposition?

Submitted by Paul Ellis

Next Tuesday, voters in several Puget Sound jurisdictions will decide ballot issues that may offer a preview of the public's appetite for funding the tri-county Roads & Transit Plan.

Tacoma's Proposition 1, which would raise property taxes by 48 cents per $1,000 of assessed value each year for the next six years, would help Pierce County's largest municipality improve streets in 6600 blocks city-wide. Seattle voters have their own Proposition 1, part of a broad package dubbed "Bridging the Gap" and slated to add 36 dollars for every $1000 of assessed value to generate $361 million over nine years for local transportation improvements (very broadly defined). King County Proposition 2 would increase the sales tax by one-tenth of a percent to raise $568 million over the next 10 years for deployment of as much as 20 percent more Metro Transit buses on the road.

Poll after poll in the region ranks traffic congestion as a top drawer issue for Puget Sound voters, but Tuesday's results will reveal how vital the issue really is as citizens "vote with their pocketbooks." Some political insiders worry government is asking for too much, too late--and all at once. Some now worry that voter pushback to the current proposals could jeopardize next year's long-awaited efforts on the Roads & Transit Plan.

Paul Ellis is lead staff for RAMP; an employee of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, Ellis led the Pierce County Transportation Advisory Committee (PCTAC), the community’s largest transportation planning effort.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Road & Transit Elements Emerging

Submitted by Paul Ellis

As explained here on September 11th, Sound Transit and the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID) are working together on an integrated Roads and Transit Plan that will include multiple extensions of regional transit services along with major road improvements. The specific projects that may be presented for voter approval next November are gradually becoming somewhat clearer.

In July, Sound Transit unveiled three sample investment options that provide a vision of what the transit piece of the future regional system could look like--different scenarios combining new investments in light rail, regional buses, park-and-ride lots, HOV access lanes, transit centers and improved commuter train (Sounder) service. Since that time, more than 5,000 people from throughout the region have taken the time to comment on these options. The maximized rail extension option received the strongest support--and by a wide margin (77%). A telephone survey of the region’s residents underscored the public comments’ call for this option.

Today marks the deadline for public comments on the roads portion of the Plan, coordinated by the RTID. Written comments have been provided by RAMP in addition to participating groups such as the Port of Tacoma and the Economic Development Board.

One major area of concern noted to varying degrees in these comments is the likelihood that neither package (as they now stand, at least) adequately provides the regional connections Pierce County wants and needs, such as light rail all the way to SeaTac Airport and completion of SR-167 to I-5. The die may have been cast in the 2005 Session when the Transportation Partnership fund distribution assigned less than 5% of spending to Pierce County projects.

The ultimate question is this one--when voters are asked next November to open their wallets one more time for transportation improvements, will there be enough on the ticket to make the cost worthwhile?

Paul Ellis is lead staff for RAMP; an employee of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, Ellis led the Pierce County Transportation Advisory Committee (PCTAC), the community’s largest transportation planning effort.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Seattle Leads the Way

Submitted by Paul Ellis

The Downtown Seattle Association, City of Seattle and King County Metro have combined forces to kick off a transportation coalition led by 249 Puget Sound-area employers, patterned after Portland's successful Lloyd Center Transportation Management Association (profiled here last week).

According to the Puget Sound Regional Council, Seattle's city center is projected to add 48,000 new jobs by 2015. To achieve this level of growth, the Urban Mobility Group is working toward a targeted 6 percent decrease in the number of drive alone commuters. As a first step, the coalition has coordinated a widespread distribution of bus passes and free ferry rides, and wants such benefits to become as common as health insurance and 401(k) accounts.

This effort is part of an ongoing delivery of services through which trip planners employed through the coalition will help employees find their best commute options--whether by bus, train, carpool, vanpool, or bike--and provide incentives to help get them started. Reducing the number of drive alone commuters will help Seattle prepare for continued growth and make way for customers and clients.

As a result of the coalition's efforts, 249 Puget Sound-area employers were named best workplaces for commuters this week by an alliance led by the Environmental Protection Agency, local non-profits and transit organizations.

Paul Ellis is lead staff for RAMP; an employee of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, Ellis led the Pierce County Transportation Advisory Committee (PCTAC), the community’s largest transportation planning effort.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Commute Times, They Are A'Changing!

Submitted by Paul Ellis

Commuting trends are changing as baby boomers near retirement age at the same time that a large immigrant population has swelled the national labor force, according to a report just released by the Transportation Research Board. In the report, Commuting in America III, Virginia transportation expert Alan Pisarski examined U.S. Census data from 1990-2004 and compared data there to reports he filed in 1987 and 1996.

Among the report's findings:
  • Commutes are getting longer--the number of workers who reach their jobs in less than 20 minutes dropped to 47% in 2000 after hovering around 50% for decades, and commutes in 40 states increased by two to four minutes;
  • The number of older female drivers will increase dramatically as baby boomers work past age 65--as the percentage of the population over 65 rises sharply after 2010, a key question will be how many will continue to work and commute;
  • The percentage of Americans who walk to work dropped from 5.6% in 1980 to 3.9% in 1990 and 2.9% in 2000;
  • More than 4 million Americans now work from home--more now than those who walk to work--and a growing number of workers over age 55 are doing so;
  • Although immigrants make up less than 14 percent of all workers, they represent about 40 percent of those in large carpools;
  • Hispanics carpool at a rate double that for non-Hispanics (23% vs. 11%), and there has been a sharp drop in the percentage of African-American households without vehicles (from 31% in 1990 to about 24% in 2000);
  • Although commuting still dominates public discussion about transportation, it represents just a part of the demand Americans make on the system--work travel now only constitutes 16% of all trips.
Factsheets on the study's information and meaning are also available.

Paul Ellis is lead staff for RAMP; an employee of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, Ellis led the Pierce County Transportation Advisory Committee (PCTAC), the community’s largest transportation planning effort.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Invitation to RAMP Participants

The Regional Transit Investment District (RTID) is seeking ideas, questions, and suggestions on the proposed Blueprint for Progress. Please take a few minutes to review this site, learn about the RTID program, and send them your thoughts.

One of the RTID's guiding principles is to keep the road investments affordable—so they’ll have to make choices about where to invest the region's limited dollars. That’s why they want to know what priorities concern RAMP and its participants, in particular:
  • What road-safety issues concern you the most?
  • Where is the worst congestion in your region?
  • Where do you want investments to be made?

There are many ways to share your ideas. Send an e-mail, mail a letter, or take the online survey. The public comment period on the proposed road investments closes October 27th.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Managing Transportation--Lessons from Portland

Submitted by Paul Ellis

What transportation lessons can Pierce County's City of Destiny learn from Oregon's Rose City? A group of Tacoma's elected officials, city staff and business leaders made the trek south last week to learn how Portland funds and operates its transportation system. Portland is recognized as a national leader in innovative transportation solutions, and its Office of Transportation maintains $5.8 billion in infrastructure facilities from streets and structures to traffic signals and street lights.

Ellis McCoy, Portland's Parking Operations Manager, began with an overview of the city’s current parking system:
  • Broad stakeholder input was sought during development of Portland's Center City Plan, the Central City Transportation Management Plan, and the subsequent Meter District Policy, and a portion of net revenues from parking operations are directed back into local improvements;
  • In the three meter districts, (Central City, Lloyd District, Markham Hill), Portland has 1200 pay stations under management serving 8400 spaces (about 2200 of these just in the greater downtown);
  • Stakeholders develop neighborhood transportation plans with the help of staff, then Council reviews and approves the plans, subsequently establishing a district with a management entity.

Parking "gets the least amount of attention [of any transportation element] but requires the greatest amount of visioning," City Commissioner Sam Adams noted, but offers opportunities for enhancement because "it's subject to numerical analysis." New technology makes parking provision "easier, flexible, more cost effective," he observed.

Gathering broad stakeholder input, informed by strong analysis of current trends, should lead to development of a strategic plan that can guide not just planning but overall resource development and allocation. People don't worry about transportation planning elements like "trip avoidance", but they want to be places where there are lots of things to do--and that's how to make parking and transit use work. "Give people alternatives, not out of political correctness, but because it really is the best way to go," he observed.

When plans completed in 1994 projected 20,000 new jobs and 4,000 housing units coming into the Lloyd District, analysis of the impacts based upon existing levels of transit use (10% of commuters using transit, known as the area's "mode split") showed that growth would close down Portland's freeways at peak hours. Rick Williams, executive director for the Lloyd District Transportation Management Association (TMA), a non-profit business association representing large and small employers, came to the rescue.

The TMA helped Lloyd District employers move from 10-21% mode split over three years; the district's current goal is an ambitious 42%. The TMA committed to buy 6000 bus passes (with a volume discount), arranged with Tri-Met (Portland's transit provider) to establish a new bus route, and accepted meters to limit parking with new funds directed to the TMA. Today the Lloyd District has won an exemption from Oregon's version of Washington's Commute Trip Reduction (CTR) law.

Every employee taken out of a parking stall leads to capacity for four customers or clients, Williams contended. Like Sam Adams, he stressed the need to look at transportation assets as key pieces of a city's economic development toolbox--a tool, not just a "nice to" part of the urban landscape. In the Lloyd District, Williams has been able to offer capacity to new development through better use of existing facilities instead of having to raise money to build new parking complexes, many of which will stand empty or underutilized in off-peak hours.

Paul Ellis is lead staff for RAMP; an employee of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, Ellis led the Pierce County Transportation Advisory Committee (PCTAC), the community’s largest transportation planning effort.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Let the Pavement Roll!

Submitted by Paul Ellis

Last evening, the Pierce County Council voted 6-1 to adopt Pierce County's first comprehensive traffic-impact fee program, committing to spend an estimated $488 million over 20 years to widen roads, build new ones and rebuild intersections throughout the unincorporated areas.

The plan anticipates use of the new traffic impact fees and other sources to pay for the program, including state transportation grants, a portion of the 9.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax package approved by the Washington Legislature in 2005 and a portion of the real estate excise tax paid upon sales of property.

Pierce County's adoption of the new fees is expected to encourage adoption of similar fees in localmunicipalitiess like University Place. The City of Tacoma is requesting voter approval of a street tax for similar purposes in the November election.

At its November 1 meeting, RAMP will present a panel discussion detailing the new environment for transportation funding resulting from these measures and delineating the remaining gaps needed to move local projects ahead. Panelists will include Brian Zeigler from Pierce County and Angela Wingate from Investco Financial Corporation.

Paul Ellis is lead staff for RAMP; an employee of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, Ellis led the Pierce County Transportation Advisory Committee (PCTAC), the community’s largest transportation planning effort.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Fatally Deferred?

Submitted by Paul Ellis

Traffic chaos reigned this morning for thousands of commuters in Laval, Quebec, a suburb north of Montreal, as they tried to drive into the city following the collapse of an overpass on a major thoroughfare this weekend. At least five people were crushed to death in their cars with the collapse of the overpass, their vehicles crushed so badly that--when lifted from the rubble--they barely reached the knees of one firefighter.

Three lanes of the overpass plus a pedestrian sidewalk collapsed onto Highway 19 about 1:00 p.m. EST Saturday. Four vehicles--a motorcycle, two cars and a minivan--were on the overpass at the time of the collapse. One witness said he noticed that the road sank an inch or two when he traveled over the overpass minutes earlier and he called emergency dispatchers. A crew was dispatched to pick up the concrete but they did not close the highway. The Transport Ministry did, however, send a message to journalists, warning that there were pieces of concrete on the ground. Minutes later, the structure failed.

Former Quebec premier Pierre Marc Johnson will head a public inquiry to determine exactly what went wrong but thus far officials have no explanation for how or why part of the overpass crumpled to the ground. In the wake of the fatal collapse in Quebec, Ontario and the city of Toronto plan to conduct special inspections on overpasses that are several decades old, and public recognition is growing that the nation's bridges are in desperate need of repair. The overpass that collapsed on Saturday was 36 years old, just over half its life expectancy of 70 years. The engineering community has long warned of an "infrastructure deficit," when projects ranging from water sewage systems to bridges are constructed but not properly maintained because of a lack of resources or planning.

Canadian governments, like those in the United States, have deferred critical transportation investments for years. Public concern in our area has grown recently through the ongoing debate over major renovation projects like the Seattle Viaduct and SR-520, all within the context of a catastrophic earthquake causing structural failure. Perhaps it won't take that big a shove to provoke failure in some of our older bridges or other structures; therefore, the investigation of the Laval collapse and the findings from the engineering review should be of more than passing interest for us, as well. Perhaps the time to act is shorter than we think...

Paul Ellis is lead staff for RAMP; an employee of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, Ellis was the head of the Pierce County Transportation Advisory Committee (PCTAC), the community's largest transportation planning effort.