Monday, December 31, 2007

Another Voice: Shawn Bunney

There's already been some Sturm und Drang across the blogosphere regarding Shawn Bunney's recent letter to Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, in which he blames King County Executive Ron Sims and The Seattle Times for the defeat of the Roads & Transit package in November. The letter was sent November 28th and widely disseminated around Pierce County, even being incorporated into Bunney's year-end report to his constituents.

Bunney's been involved in the regional struggle over transportation funding as chair for the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID), the agency whose mission was to develop the roads portion of the package. The letter is certainly a brash one--some might say its tone is downright nasty--and it ends with a request for Gregoire to embrace transportation needs more widely dispersed than just King County.

In the letter, Bunney attacks Seattle and King County interests for grabbing--and continuing now to grab for--an inordinate share of the region's revenues for mobility investments:
I am sure that before voters went to bed on election night some Seattle legislators were busy ramping up for another raid of the region's roads funds... funds they say are for a $4.4 billion "Safety" project called the 520 Bridge.

This is the same group that siphoned $700 million in gas taxes out of Pierce County in the past 15 years.

We heard this same story yet again in 2006 when the same Seattle interests took almost $400 million out of Pierce County wallets to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct; a viaduct, it turns out, not wanted by Seattle because it blocks the view.
Certainly Bunney's argument has merit--as has been previously observed by this blog, Pierce County (and every other county in the state save one) has been shorted its fair share of funding, as in 2005 when the Transportation Partnership package delivered 65% of the statewide revenues to King County. That's a sure sticking point which any effort to develop a new regional package will have to address before it can move forward.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Regional Traffic Congestion--Still Getting Worse

The Puget Sound region’s economy and population have continued to grow--and along with them, traffic delays--according to the Washington State Department of Transportation's Annual Congestion Report. Released yesterday, the report provides detailed analysis of the 38 most congested highway routes in the region, and (not surprisingly) it shows that commuters are traveling at slightly slower speeds and spending longer periods of time in traffic.

From 2004 to 2006, the Puget Sound region added 91,000 new jobs and 107,000 new residents; consequently, more people had to travel on the same roads at the same time. Overall, average travel times increased on 32 routes, decreased on three routes and remained constant on three routes. Travel time increased from one to seven minutes over the two-year period.

To effectively address growing congestion across the region, WSDOT will continue to emphasize key congestion management objectives--"maximizing system throughput and enhancing reliability"--through sustained focus on three strategies:
  • Managing demand (i.e., building HOV lanes, supporting Commute Trip Reduction efforts, and using technology to offer more real-time information);
  • Operating efficiently (i.e., installing ramp meters, synchronizing traffic signals, and deploying incident response units);
  • Adding capacity (i.e., completing capital projects).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Two Surveys, One Conclusion

Two new surveys are hitting the streets this month, both of which purport to read the tea leaves left in the wake of November's election results. While the two sources are very dissimilar, the results are surprisingly alike.

The first, released December 7th, is a "stakeholder" survey done for Sound Transit by Cocker Fennessy. The survey consisted of 31 executive interviews with business, community and transportation leaders, and an online instrument involving 2,412 individuals.

In brief, the executive surveys, which included RAMP Co-Chairs, makes the following observations about why Roads & Transit failed and what any new proposal needs to be successful:

1. Cost and complexity were key reasons for the defeat;
2. Regional conversation is needed about leadership;
3. Lack of trust and frustration with government;
4. Never saw personal benefits of Roads & Transit;
5. Struggling to ID “right” tax formula;
6. Lack of consensus re: content, timing and projects for next measure;
7. Regional solutions preferred;
8. Relationship and coalition-building needed

Tomorrow, the Washington Policy Center (WPC) will release a poll conducted by Moore Information. Statewide and, in particular, across the Puget Sound region, the public "cares about traffic congestion and is not happy with the government’s performance of addressing it," according to WPC.

According to this survey, the major reason Proposition 1 lost in last month's election was concern about the possibility of higher taxes; yet, nearly half of respondents who voted against Proposition 1 say they would have considered voting for the measure if they had been convinced it would reduce congestion.

Both of these latest glimpses into the collective mind of the electorate match with earlier surveys and consensus developed by RAMP participants. Traffic congestion remains a front burner issue but the public has at least a healthy distriust for government attempts to address it--particularly large, poorly-focused attempts.

Monday, December 17, 2007

King County's 'Plan B': What's In It For Pierce?

As predicted by RAMP's Co-Chairs at the group's most recent meeting, King County leaders are now beginning the push to implement the flawed recommendations set forth last year by the Regional Transportation Commission. An oped in last Thursday's edition of The Seattle Times offers the opinion that Proposition 1's recent failure should mandate folding the project and financial planning powers of Sound Transit, the Regional Transportation Investment District, Puget Sound Regional Council and dozens of other regional transportation agencies into a new regional transportation agency.

Even a cursory glance at the piece, co-authored by Phil Talmadge (a Tukwila attorney and former state Supreme Court justice) & Mark Baerwaldt (a Belltown entrepreneur and financier), should give pause to readers from the South Sound. For starters, its list of vital regional projects lists the Murray Morgan Bridge--not SR-167--along with the Viaduct and SR-520; that reflects the same rough percentage of funding dispersion as the 2005 Transportation Partnership package from which King County derived 65% of the statewide revenue versus 5 percent for Pierce County and even less for everyone else.

It's abundantly clear from November's election results that the region's voters believe that bigger is not better. The curious logic behind this piece seems to be that, nonetheless, what voters now want is an even bigger agency that can mastermind transportation investment with even less local input.

The piece also decries the high cost and low benefit its authors anticipate from the light rail line soon to be linking Seattle with SeaTac Airport; a cynical South Sounder would view this as knocking a done deal (the dollars are already there to finish that line) so as to avoid stating their real objection--that Tacoma and Pierce County "don't need" high capacity alternatives to the highway system.

There are, however, some suggestions with which RAMP participants can agree, such as the following:
  • Holding transportation agencies accountable for producing verifiable and quantifiable results;
  • Expanding bus service on busy corridors;
  • Providing financial incentives to increase bus ridership;
  • Providing the maximum number of vans for van pools;
  • Crafting incentives to major employers to stagger their hours of business;
  • Sequencing traffic signals in cities to increase traffic flows and save energy;
  • Initiating pilot projects for congestion pricing--automated tolls based on demand or capacity--on our most clogged highways.

All of these initiatives can be implemented without any new agencies--what's needed is more resources spread more equitably across the region. How to do that seems to be absent from this oped's advice.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

RAMP Accelerates Forward Motion Towards a Solution

With leadership from its Co-Chairs and participation from a record crowd of attendees representing a broad cross-section of Pierce County decision-makers, yesterday morning RAMP initiated a robust discussion about how to fund this area's transportation needs for the future.

Ian Stewart from EMC Research presented results of a recent regional survey conducted for Sound Transit reflecting how voters viewed the Roads & Transit proposal that they rejected. 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.

Members of the RAMP Staff Team presented a matrix comparing three possible new funding strategies, then discussed relative merits of each approach:
  • Regional Transit Investment District (RTID) - Pierce County is now eligible to "go it alone" on a roads package, or it can make another attempt in cooperation with King County;
  • Transportation Benefit District - another way to proceed that would require some additional jurisdictional structures to be created but (perhaps) allows more flexibility;
  • Local Option Gas Tax - one other discreet source of taxing authority that could provide transportation dollars and/or supplement revenues from the other approaches.

The staff team--which includes experts from Pierce County, Pierce Transit, Sound Transit, the Port of Tacoma, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, WSDOT and the City of Tacoma--will work this month to "flesh out" information on the three options, including more finely tuned projections for potential revenues from each approach. An expanded matrix will be presented to participants at RAMP's next meeting: Wednesday morning, January 9th (one week later than the normal schedule).

At that same meeting, participants will be briefed on findings from comprehensive polling of Pierce County residents--information that will add to the regional data--just now being completed by EMC Research. Participants will also be asked to finalize RAMP's 2008 Legislative Priorities.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

By-the-Mile Tolling in Oregon: Panning Out or Panned?

As reported some months ago in this blog, Oregon has been testing on-board Global Positioning Systems that could one day allow mile-by-mile pricing for all car travel in the state. A few weeks ago, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) released the final report on their "Road User Fee Pilot Program"--which declared the project "feasible."

According to the blog Portland Transport, the proposed system detects whether a vehicle is within one of three zones and logs mileage within each zone into separate categories for billing purposes. The zones are out-of-state (no charge), in-state (nominal charge), and within the Portland metro area (nominal charge with option for congestion pricing). The mileage fee would be collected at the fuel pump in lieu of a gas tax (for those who have the proper equipment to communicate with the fuel pump), while out-of-state drivers (or those otherwise without the proper equipment) would be charged the fuel tax in lieu of a mileage fee.

Washington's neighbor to the south is often in the forefront of new initiatives--for instance, Oregon was the first state to implement a gas tax, in 1919. So how likely is the advent of such a system there?

The most recent issue of Willamette Week (in an article entitled "Miles from Nowhere") predicts that it won't happen for several reasons:
  • Environmentalists question why the state would switch to a system where a Hummer owner would be treated the same as a Prius owner;
  • Civil libertarians raise alarms about the mileage tax’s underlying technology that uses a global positioning system to count the number of miles driven;
  • ODOT itself believes that it’s unlikely that a relatively small state like Oregon could be the first to implement a mileage tax;
  • The prototypes used in the pilot are not commercially viable, meaning that the technology would have to be developed.

Monday, December 03, 2007

RAMP Gathers Support for Next Funding Effort

RAMP's Co-Chairs are inviting broad participation in an upcoming discussion about this area's future mobility--a discussion that will help Pierce County move forward in a coordinated, effective manner to prepare for the 2008 Legislative Session and, beyond that, the next effort to secure funding needed for critical transportation projects.

Co-Chair David Graybill will be addressing the Tacoma City Council's Committee of the Whole next Tuesday afternoon to invite their participation in the consensus process. RAMP's other participants are likewise being encouraged to take part, and RAMP is making a special effort to communicate with those jurisdictions that haven't been involved or that have been only occasionally involved to encourage their involvement in this process.

Particpants in the December 5th RAMP meeting will consider a number of potential venues for funding Pierce County transportation projects, including:

Participants will have a briefing on why the public rejected the recent Roads & Transit proposal from Ian Stewart, principal in EMC Research, who has recently completed a regional survey on behalf of Sound Transit.