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Originally published September 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 27, 2007 at 2:04 AM


Guest columnist

The roads-and-transit plan: so much cost to do so little

This November, voters must carefully consider the $47 billion regional roads and transit package. This is a momentous decision, with construction...

Special to The Times

This November, voters must carefully consider the $47 billion regional roads and transit package. This is a momentous decision, with construction scheduled to last 20 years, funded with bonds that won't be fully repaid for 50 years.

While containing some good projects, this plan doesn't solve traffic congestion in the short term, nor does it provide enough long-term relief to justify the financial and environmental costs. Tragically, this plan continues the national policy of ignoring our impacts upon global warming. In a region known for our leadership efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, this plan will actually boost harmful carbon emissions. In its entirety, I regrettably conclude that costs exceed benefits.

If approved, we will see the largest tax increase in state history. Starting in January, car-tab taxes will triple, and the sales tax will be 9.5 percent (10 percent in King County restaurants).

I look at this package with the knowledge that in 50 years, my oldest son will be 80 when it's paid off. My granddaughter will be 55. Their ability to make public investments relevant to their lives and times will be severely limited by this package. Should I be so lucky, I will use my pension until I am 110 years old to pay my share!

The benefits of this package are far from immediate. Even if on schedule, 60 percent of new light rail won't open until 2027. Light rail across Lake Washington is at least 14 years away. The Northgate extension is 11 years away.

The road package is equally back-loaded, with replacement of Highway 520 only partially funded. The 520 funding shortfall is $1.3 billion, even with past gas-tax money and tolls. But the plan still calls for landscaped lids in Medina, the wealthiest neighborhood in our state, financed with regressive taxes on the working poor. When finished, RTID (Regional Transportation Investment District) increases highway capacity by 4.9 percent while traffic is projected to grow eight times faster.

This roads-and-transit plan just doesn't move enough people.

Projected light-rail ridership to Bellevue and Overlake is lackluster because of indirect routing. Traveling from Capitol Hill to the Microsoft campus via downtown Seattle and Mercer Island is slow and cumbersome. The retrofit of Interstate 90 for light rail will slow express-bus service and increase commute times to Issaquah, Sammamish and North Bend.

To the south, we have different inefficiencies. Light rail would connect Seattle to Tacoma (already served by faster Sounder Trains) and run along Highway 99 (where last year's King County Metro "Transit Now" tax increase is ramping up bus-rapid-transit service).

Instead, expanded bus service could generate much higher ridership in this corridor while freeing up funds for light rail to Southcenter and Renton. In Pierce County, we can achieve more traffic relief by extending light rail within Tacoma to the University of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran University.

Service to Northgate finally delivers on the promise of light rail. But delay to 2018 is inexcusable; this badly needed segment can and should be built sooner.

Further north, we will probably regret the decision to build along I-5, which limits future development. And, ridership would be higher building from Everett to the south.

We can't afford to wait two decades to do so little. We need a solid transportation plan that moves this region forward with immediate congestion relief.

The package before us does not include solutions like congestion pricing or variable tolls. The goal of congestion pricing is to keep our highways moving efficiently, getting people to work or home in the shortest amount of time. With congestion pricing we would see immediate results.

The private sector is already a tremendous partner, with many employers providing subsidized bus passes and van pools. In concert with congestion pricing, we need to consider remote work sites, telecommuting and other alternatives.

But, the most important option to accompany congestion pricing must be better access to transit. Transit is also critical to the environment.

University of Colorado researchers forecast that the Arctic ice cap will have completely melted by the summer of 2030, shortly after this package is completed. By 2050, around the time we finish paying for this package, two-thirds of the world's polar bears are expected to be extinct.

We must not make transportation decisions without considering the impact on global warming.

I have introduced several initiatives as county executive to combat climate change. We operate the state's largest fleet of biodiesel-fueled buses, and we are pursuing a green-fleet initiative to bring more clean and climate-friendly vehicles to King County. We joined the Chicago Climate Exchange and developed a detailed plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. We've preserved more than 100,000 acres of carbon-absorbing forests. But all this progress on global warming would be negated by this plan.

Faced with catastrophic climate change, we need to have courage in our convictions, in our leadership and in our transportation solutions. We must question the environmental implications of our actions.

I commend the Sierra Club, Cascade Bicycle Club and Conservation Northwest for showing great courage in asking these important questions.

This plan is inadequate. We need to refocus on bold solutions that offer immediate relief and a better tomorrow — future generations deserve no less.

Until we have real transportation solutions, I'm a "no" vote.

Ron Sims is the King County executive.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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