OLYMPIA — State transportation planners are starting to add an experienced perspective into their calculations for fighting gridlock.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said Tuesday the view of those behind the wheel, not just those behind a desk, needs to be considered when figuring the best ways to ease congestion.
“We need to look at it from the mind and the eyes of the individual … not our eyes,” Gregoire said during a briefing on her administration’s progress in unclogging the state’s roadways.
Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, seated across from the governor, welcomed what amounts to an endorsement of an effort she’s undertaken since assuming control of the department.
Drivers look at their trips, not the projects, and want to know how long it will take them to get to where they’re going, she said in an interview.
She’s pushing agency staff to measure costs and benefits of improvements on entire travel corridors, rather than a single intersection or offramp.
“It’s really easy to say I’m going to widen a road. We need to ask, ‘Did it make a difference? Was it the right investment?’” she said.
Bob Williams, president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation and a vocal critic of the transportation department, said the governor sent a clear message, though it will take a while for the change to become noticeable.
“They’re so oriented to this bureaucracy. The Department of Transportation has had it forever,” he said.
He said Tuesday’s briefing made clear the department “has greatly improved their reporting system. Their problem is they don’t have a delivery system.”
Williams said the department’s own information shows there are means of reducing congestion and accidents that the state is not fully pursuing.
In the hourlong briefing, Hammond and the transportation department’s chief operating officer, David Dye, laid out the challenge and outlined the agency’s response.
Hammond said until gas tax hikes in 2003 and 2005, the state had gone years without building roads and instead concentrated on getting people to drive less by carpooling, vanpooling and using mass transit.
Population grew and jobs multiplied, which has put a lot more people on the roads and lot more pressure on the transportation system, Hammond said.
Driving from Everett to Seattle, which takes 24 minutes at posted speed limits, is up to an average of an hour in the morning commute, transportation department statistics show. Drivers set aside an average of 91 minutes to be sure they reach their destination on time, according to the statistics.
Hammond said while the state cannot pave its way out of congestion, it can try to make the existing system run smoother with carpool lanes, ramp meters and synchronized traffic signals.
The agency is trying to manage road use by encouraging carpools and mass transit. It plans to offer toll lanes for drivers willing to pay for an opportunity to travel in less clogged lanes.
Building new highway lanes also is part of the three-pronged approach.
Most of the briefing amounted to Gregoire and her cabinet poring through charts of data on the effectiveness of these efforts and asking questions. Hammond will be back in front of the governor in July.
State budget director Victor Moore pointed to how successful synchronized traffic signals have been in reducing travel times. Only 55 percent of 885 state-owned signals have been eyed for synchronization, the department reported.
“I wonder why we’re not at 100 percent,” he said.
When Gregoire read that park-and-ride lots are overflowing, she asked about what was being done to increase their capacity.
When she got to the chart showing that accidents are a major factor in congestion, she said the department needed to work with the Washington State Patrol to reduce long and lengthy back-ups.
Hammond agreed and then added a bit of levity.
“I’ve had wild visions of fitting the State Patrol vehicles with plow fronts to clear the accidents. Chief (John) Batiste doesn’t think that’s a good idea,” she joked.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.