Seattle’s Long-Range Plan To Beat Traffic Congestion

Expanding capacity, toll roads and private capital are keys to mobility

Residents of the Puget Sound region hate traffic congestion. The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue urbanized area ranks among the nation’s most congested places, a result of strong growth, geography and a failure to keep its transportation network on par with the needs of the region’s rising wealth.

The Seattle area is on track to match current-day Los Angeles levels of congestion if major upgrades to the road network aren’t implemented now, even with the fall in demand triggered by last summer’s gas prices and the current global recession. The national economy is expected to start turning by the end of the year, and with it will come higher travel demand and congested roads.

The good news is that Puget Sound isn’t necessarily destined for a congested future. Your fate is in your hands. It will, however, take leadership, cutting-edge technology, and a willingness to meet the needs of a globally competitive, service-based economy that values mobility.

Fortunately, the region is ahead of the curve. Washington has at least acknowledged the problem through the state auditor’s study “End Congestion Now.” State and local policymakers have committed to a deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and an Urban Partnership Agreement with the federal government will help underwrite the replacement of the SR 520 bridge. Both projects will also give a boost to public transit.

On the other hand, these investments won’t be nearly enough to meet the challenges of a booming region that wants to remain competitive. The Alaskan Way tunnel will reduce road capacity from six lanes to four. Without upgrades to other arterials and highways, motorists will face even more clogged roads and mobility will fall as a consequence.

Congestion is a time tax that few businesses or employees tolerate in higher income cities.
Greater mobility gives employers access to a greater number of workers, and workers greater access to a larger number of businesses.

The economic consequences are not just theoretical. Reason Foundation Transportation Policy Analyst David Hartgen estimates that relieving congestion over the next 20 years throughout the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue urbanized area would cost between $5 and $10 billion but add as much as $13 billion to the regional economy. The Seattle central business district would see its economy goosed by nearly $5 billion as a result of improved access. Reducing congestion in Seattle could generate new output of over $13 billion. Tax revenues alone could be two to three times the construction costs.

Slowing the rate of increase in congestion won’t cut it. The Seattle urbanized area has to focus on reducing congestion below current levels as a policy goal if it wants to achieve the economic benefits of higher mobility.

With current and emerging technologies in transportation, free-flow travel is achievable if strategies and programs are integrated into a long-range transportation plan.

First, transportation planners need to expand the road and transit network to keep pace with the increase in travel demand. This means adding highway capacity as well as improving the efficiency of local roads through traffic signal timing, adding left-hand turn lanes, and removing local bottlenecks.

Second, policymakers need to embrace tolling. This would not be our great-grandfathers’ toll booths, but a seamless 21st century “boothless” network. Travelers would be guaranteed free-flow travel throughout the region by linking these “priced” lanes into a network called a high-occupancy toll, or HOT, network. This technology, along with Washington’s pilot program on Highway 167 between Renton and Kent, is now used in places such as Orange County, California, San Diego, Minneapolis, and Denver. It allows prices to be set by time of day and traffic volume so that free-flow travel is guaranteed 24-7 on the lanes and roads that use it.

Third, regional policymakers need to embrace private capital. Tolling creates a revenue stream that prioritizes projects based on willingness to pay. It also creates non-tax dollars that can leverage private capital to finance new infrastructure. These private funds simply can’t be tapped through traditional tax financing.

A world-class city of the 21st century nurtures nascent global businesses. These businesses thrive by tapping into a skilled, knowledgeable, and productive workforce. A regional transportation policy strategy focused on improving mobility plays in increasing important role in nurturing this productivity and, ultimately, profitability. Failing to acknowledge this role puts the entire regional at economic risk.

Sam Staley, Ph.D., is director of urban and land use policy for Reason Foundation and co-author of Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield).