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Originally published Thursday, December 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM


Guest columnists

From the ashes of Proposition 1

After the overwhelming defeat of regional transportation tax measure Proposition 1, everyone is asking, what is Plan B? First and foremost, Plan...

Special to The Times

After the overwhelming defeat of regional transportation tax measure Proposition 1, everyone is asking, what is Plan B? First and foremost, Plan B must be lean, green and now.

The first step is to reform governance and accountability, and the manner in which we set priorities.

Doug MacDonald, the former Washington secretary of transportation, put it best when he called for a single new regional transportation board of directors and said Proposition 1's failure proved the need for "a total change from the old, divided, turf-bound way of planning transportation."

The project and financial planning powers of Sound Transit, the Regional Transportation Investment District, Puget Sound Regional Council and the dozens of other regional transportation agencies should be folded into a new regional transportation agency. The framework for this new agency, including a directly elected board, has already been delivered to Gov. Christine Gregoire by the Regional Transportation Commission headed by former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and businessman John Stanton.

A new regional transportation organization is not just a cosmetic change. This group must develop an objective methodology to evaluate all projects in the Puget Sound region, including roads, bridges and public transit, from the standpoint of safety, mobility, cost-effectiveness and environmental impacts, such as global warming. Taxpayers must be assured that the region's truly most pressing needs are actually being addressed and that political posturing is taking a back seat.

Additionally, there should be performance audits conducted annually by the Washington state auditor for every plan and project.

We must fix what we have first. We can all agree there are certain actions that simply must take place from a safety or mobility standpoint. Certain road- and bridge-replacement projects like the Murray Morgan Bridge in Tacoma, the U.S. Highway 2 trestle in Everett, the Highway 520 floating bridge, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the South Park Bridge all need immediate attention. Innovative methods that minimize disruption to existing traffic flows should be used for these improvements.

We can also all agree that certain mobility steps can be taken now as well. These include improved and expanded bus service on busy corridors; financial incentives to increase bus ridership, like expansion of the ride-free zone in Seattle; provision of the maximum number of vans for van pools; incentives to major employers in the region to stagger the hours of business; and sequencing traffic signals in cities to increase traffic flows and save energy. Improving the efficiency and mobility of our existing transportation infrastructure means doing many little things, not necessarily making massive, unfocused capital expenditures.

Bus rapid transit (BRT), such as the L.A. Metro Orange Line, is sleek, modern, flexible and fast. BRT, along with improving our bus transit system, which is already one of the best in the world, is the easiest, most cost-effective method of producing immediate additional transit use.

BRT eliminates the need for expensive (at hundreds of millions of dollars per mile) light-rail tunnels in hilly Seattle and the unknown risks from attempting to cross a floating bridge with light rail. BRT and buses using high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes and priority signaling will move freely and quickly enough to retain and grow transit ridership. BRT can be in service within a few years instead of decades from now. BRT is also considerably less expensive to build and operate than light rail. The combined regional bus systems already have hundreds of routes with more than 10,000 bus stops. Adding more is quick, easy and inexpensive.

When the initial, single light-rail line from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport opens in a few years, it will have a dozen stops and its benefits will be just a fraction of what Sound Transit promised in its 10-year plan of 1996. Light rail should not be expanded until this initial system proves its worth, in operation.

The business sector needs to do its fair share. Freight, distribution and warehousing firms and their customers all need to rethink their business and environmental practices with creative alternatives. How much money and fuel would they save if they simply moved more of their goods at off-peak times when there are no delays on the roadways?

Each of us has to take personal responsibility and pay for what we use. That means fully funding transportation projects before we start them. And, that means user fees. It is irresponsible for our elected leaders to pretend there is a free lunch or that the federal government is going to help us in any significant way.

Automated, electronic-collection tolls are probably necessary on some highways and bridges. Automated tolls are now being used on the Narrows Bridge in Tacoma. We also need to create HOT lanes, with automated tolls, to allocate space in the high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. Buses and van pools will have priority in HOT lanes and thus be able to move freely and quickly along the highways. And we should probably start pilot installations for congestion pricing — automated tolls based on demand or capacity — on our most clogged highways.

Plan B is lean, green and ready. Let's move forward now.

Phil Talmadge is a former state senator and former state Supreme Court justice. Mark Baerwaldt is a Belltown entrepreneur and financier.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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