Friday, November 30, 2007

Survey Says: Voters Rejected Package, Not Projects

Sound Transit has just released results of a recent public opinion survey of about 1,000 registered voters across the region. The survey work was conducted by EMC Research and Moore Information to help analyze and understand the results on Proposition 1. In brief, the survey results suggest that the region's voters rejected Proposition 1 because they saw the measure as a whole as too big and too expensive; nevertheless, traffic/transportation issues continue to be the runaway top concern for those same regional voters.

Few voters understood the costs of the package or what it would cost them personally, the survey results suggest, and the vote did not seem to be a referendum on individual roads and transit projects in the package. Looking forward, voters indicate a strong preference towards future transportation measures separating roads from transit and addressing fewer projects in each package. Survey respondents also said that future transportation measures should take a more incremental approach and contain strong, clear accountability measures.

Researcher Ian Stewart will present results of the survey at the next RAMP meeting, December 5th.

Monday, November 19, 2007

TIB Awards $68.1 Million Statewide, $6.6 Million Locally

The Washington State Transportation Improvement Board (TIB) awarded road and sidewalk improvement grants to sixty projects statewide, totaling $65.4 million, at its November 16th meeting in Tacoma. In addition, 46 towns and cities were awarded a total of $2.7 million for road and sidewalk maintenance. The grant funding comes from the revenue generated by three cents of the statewide gas tax dedicated by the Legislature to TIB programs.

Pierce County was notified that it will receive $5 million to widen 94th Ave. E., as well as to build sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides of this heavily-congested roadway. The City of Lakewood will receive $1.6 million to complement private developer improvements recently completed on Bridgeport Way.

Additional grants Bonney Lake, Buckley, South Prairie, and Milton of nearly $500,000 will be targeted to providing new sidewalks and sidewalk maintenance in those cities.

Another Voice: Brian Sonntag

Brian Sonntag, Washington State Auditor, offers some recommendations in today's edition of The News Tribune based upon his department's recent performance audit on traffic congestion. Sonntag, former Pierce County auditor, has been state auditor since 1993.

The performance audit identified steps that could reduce congestion between 15 and 20 percent over the next five years, claims Sonntag, without requiring additional resources. Among the recommended actions are the following:
  • Increase discretion over using HOV lanes;
  • Coordinate traffic signals on arterials with freeway exit ramps;
  • Expand promotion of car pools and public transit; and
  • Improve responses to traffic accidents.

According to Sonntag, the audit also points out that reducing traffic congestion "has not been a top priority among state transportation officials." He recommends that WSDOT should address congestion on the same priority level as safety, highway maintenance and preserving existing roads and bridges: "They all are compatible, not mutually exclusive."

Sonntag also recommends a single agency to oversee transportation planning in the region, in which he identifies "128 public entities with responsibilities for transportation planning and spending in Puget Sound"--clearly, this number includes general purpose "agencies" such as cities and towns. "One organization needs to coordinate the myriad of transportation planning activities and be positioned to decide what is best for the Puget Sound region [emphasis ours]. Say, a Regional Transportation Commission?

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Road(s)--and Transit--Ahead

As the fall-out continues from last week's failure of the Roads & Transit package, a variety of leaders are offering their perspectives on what happened and, perhaps more important, what to do next.

Don Brunell, President of the Association of Washington Business, echoes the sentiments of RAMP Co-Chair John Ladenburg that action is badly needed:
Despite $11 billion in new taxes and fees over the last five years, traffic congestion is choking the state's economy and leaving drivers trapped in 30 mph "rush hour" traffic. If we wait, congestion will only get worse and costs will go even higher. For example, the cost of road repair materials has increased an average of 33 percent in the past three years. And if we wait too long, we could experience a tragedy like the collapse of the I-35 Bridge in Minneapolis.
Brunell recommends the following directions for future action:
  • Hand major projects over to the private sector (companies like Cintra are building the roads, and motorists pay them back through tolls);
  • Implement "congestion pricing," on Washington's highways, whether those roads are publicly or privately operated.
Meanwhile, Sound Transit CEO Joni Earl reports that her agency "will reach out to the public and our key stakeholders to ask questions, listen to their answers and learn more about how we should move ahead." ST has employed EMC Research and Moore Information to survey the region's voters as part of that process.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Back to the Drawing Board

Proposition 1, which would have raised taxes to pay for $18 billion worth of road and transit projects, failed at the polls Tuesday by a wide margin in all three Central Puget Sound counties. At this month's RAMP meeting (held yesterday morning), local transportation leaders were still trying to regroup after the drubbing at the polls.
"We're going to have to work through the noise about the campaign and its failure over the next few weeks," Shawn Bunney, Chair for the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID), stated. We have to go back to the people of our region and ask: "Did you really not want transportation to work?"

RAMP Co-Chair John Ladenburg observed: "There will be lots of conflicting theories, but one thing's for sure--doing nothing is not an option." Ladenburg is the Pierce County Executive and the Chair for Sound Transit.

The impassioned "morning after" soul-searching gave way to steely resolve as RAMP participants began their scheduled discussion about priorities for lobbying in the 2008 Legislative Session. Governor Chris Gregoire and other state leaders seem to be focused mainly on one project--replacing the SR-520 bridge across Lake Washington. Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, believes it’s time to take another look some sort of super agency--like the Regional Transportation Commission--to coordinate all agencies across the region that plan, fund and operate road and transit projects.

"We need to be at the top of our game going into Olympia this year," Ladenburg said. He and RAMP Co-Chair David Graybill called for a transportation summit of sorts at next month's RAMP meeting (December 5th). At that meeting, participants will be asked to consider several related issues, including:

  • How does Pierce County gain statewide--even regional, for that matter--recognition for its infrastructure needs (e.g., the I-5 bridge over the Puyallup River is just as ready to fall as the Alaskan Way Viaduct)?

  • Should Pierce County break away from King and Snohomish counties to present its own roads package to voters, as allowed by state law if the regional Roads & Transit measure failed?

  • How do we effectively address not just building projects but providing congestion relief?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Prop 1 Campaign Cash--and Rhetoric--Continues to Mount

Those for and against Proposition 1 (the Roads & Transit proposal) have raised more than $4.9 million in cash and in-kind contributions, dwarfing fundraising for the three previous statewide transportation measures. Backers have raised and spent nearly 84 percent of the money, $4.1 million, as the measure faces what is expected by both sides to be a close vote.

The Seattle media seemed to rally a bit in support of the proposition, with the Seattle Times editorial columnist Lance Dickie opining:

Tuesday's election is adorned with black crepe, but I will not be surprised if a three-county package of highway and Sound Transit improvements wins approval.

Wishful thinking? Nope, not even civic optimism. Voters idling off $3-a-gallon gasoline in traffic feel stranded and they want choices. They know it is long past time to get started.

That's a far cry from yesterday's rail-bashing (at least south of Tukwila) editorial by Bruce Ramsey.

Even farther was Joel Connelly's column in the Post-Intelligencer:

As folks decide on Prop. 1..."No" side partisans are freely giving assurances of a brighter tomorrow if the voters refuse to jump for this package of steep taxes.

Sierra Club leaders told me over lunch that Sound Transit can come back with a light rail-only proposal. An editorial writer with Seattle's duller daily opined that local officials will hammer together a more modest proposal.

"Neither one of them is right. ... I don't see anything on the ballot in 2008. I do not see how Sound Transit could go back next year," said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

"Congestion pricing" is the new catchphrase, on tongues ranging from King County Executive Ron Sims to professional naysayers on the political right. But do not ask for whom the tolls will be rung up, or what agency gets to pocket them.

In other words, there is no viable alternative to Roads & Transit--RAMP's position from the beginning of this campaign.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Light Rail to Tacoma: Bonanza or Boondoggle?

Regular readers of this blog know that both King County Executive Ron Sims and the Sierra Club say taking light rail to Tacoma doesn't make much sense. Today's front page article in the Seattle Times considers the pros and cons to this point of view.

The article reports that, when the King County Office of Management & Budget did a "rough" cost-benefit analysis of each proposed light-rail segment in Proposition 1, as well as bus and commuter rail, it estimated that for every $1,000 spent the Tacoma extension would carry 69 passengers; by comparison, the analysis found that light rail to Bellevue would carry 106 people per $1,000 and the extension north would move 369 people per $1,000. Sound Transit responds that its ridership projections from Sea-Tac to Tacoma are the same as its projections for the light-rail route to Redmond. Analysts arrived at the estimates by "taking projected costs of the projects and dividing them by estimates of how many people would ride each segment"--in other words, estimated guesswork. Does anyone doubt that a similarly "rough" estimate by Pierce County might derive a much different estimate?

Sims questions Sound Transit's projections that people would ride light rail to places inside Pierce County instead of traveling all the way to Seattle. That's a difference he needs to resolve with the Puget Sound Regional Council--the source of long-term regional employment estimates--not Sound Transit.

Elsewhere in that paper is a rail-bashing (at least south of Tukwila) editorial by editorial columnist Bruce Ramsey, in which he concludes with this intellectual exercise: "Imagine what it will cost, and how many people who now stream by Fife's car dealerships will get out of their cars, buy a ticket and wait for the train that stops at South Federal Way, Federal Way, Redondo, Des Moines, South 200th Street, Sea-Tac Airport, Highway 518, and on up the Rainier Valley into downtown Seattle." Unlike John Lennon, Ramsey doesn't seem to like what imagination brings to life--or maybe he just can't imagine the rail traffic going anything but one way, into Seattle.

Patrick O'Callahan, political columnist for The News Tribune, notes in that newspaper's editorial blog today that "[s]ome opponents of Proposition 1, like Ramsey and King County Executive Ron Sims, have decided it would just cost too much to extend Seattle's light rail line down to low-rent Pierce County."