Is more pavement a solution?


Herald Writer

It is an enticing promise: Solve the state’s traffic problems without a dime in tax increases.

That’s the offer from supporters of Initiative 745. Rearrange spending priorities, cut government waste, and the dreary monotony of daily traffic jams will ease.

“I-745 solves the traffic problem WITHOUT raising taxes,” campaign pamphlets state.

The plan, to be accepted or rejected by voters on Nov. 7, has attracted the state’s Republican Party, developers and asphalt companies, and people frustrated by the region’s seemingly intractable traffic problems.

But a some people versed in the state’s transportation woes, from traffic engineers to lawmakers and businesspeople, say the initiative can’t deliver on that promise.

Some point to a looming shortfall in transportation funding of up to $50 billion as evidence that people will have to pay more to address the problems. Others say I-745’s spending provisions are unworkable. Some suggest the idea of “solving” the state’s traffic woes is wishful thinking.

“There’s always an easy answer to every human problem. Neat, plausible and wrong. And that’s my reaction to 745,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center, a research group within the University of Washington’s College of Engineering.

The initiative offers a simple rule to cut through the complicated financing for transportation projects: Add up nearly all the transportation dollars in the state, including those spent by cities, counties and other agences, and then make sure 90 percent is spent on roads.

That requirement will awaken state lawmakers, after years spent neglecting the need for more roads, said Tim Eyman, the Mukilteo businessman, leader of last year’s successful I-695 campaign and promoter of the I-745 campaign.

Eyman criticized state transportation officials for contributing to gridlock by not building more roads, saying the state has added only 47 new miles of roadway in 14 years.

“Unless you vote yes, you’re going to keep the ‘no roads’ approach,” he said.

But state officials say Eyman’s numbers downplay road building accomplishments. The Department of Transportation reports building 49 new miles of road since 1991, close to Eyman’s estimate. But that doesn’t account for new lanes added to existing roads. The state reports building 422 miles worth of new lanes since 1991. That doesn’t include all the new roads and extra lanes built throughout the state by cities and counties.

The initiative could pump a sizable amount of new money into roads, depending on how state lawmakers implement it. At current spending levels, it would shift up to $2 billion into road-related budgets, according to the state budget office.

Another part of the initiative will squeeze more out of each dollar, by ordering a performance audit on every transportation agency in the state, proponents say.

The combination of more road building and more accountability could help rebalance spending that has swung too far toward transit, said Bill Eager, president of TDA Inc., a Seattle transportation planning firm.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Eager said of the initiative.

Eager wrote a 1998 study commissioned by Kemper Freeman, a prominent Bellevue developer and owner of the Bellevue Square mall. Eager urged construction of roughly 1,400 miles of road lanes in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties. That would cost as much as $12.8 billion and return the region’s traffic congestion to levels of the early 1980s, he argued.

While additional construction could ease congestion in some places, Hallenbeck criticized the report for underestimating the cost of such a building spree and overstating its impact.

There’s widespread agreement among transportation engineers that simply adding new roads won’t rid a fast-growing, urbanized region of congestion, Hallenbeck said. As new freeway miles are added, people will fill them as they get off side streets, try to cut their commutes shorter by starting later, or run into bottlenecks on other streets.

While transportation officials can try to hold congestion at bay and offer alternatives to car travel, he said some congestion is just a fact of life in the Puget Sound region.

“The concept that you could reduce congestion considerably is silly,” he said.

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