Our state’s transportation solutions up to the voters

Finally, we have some serious, far-reaching ideas on improving transportation in Washington. The governor appears committed and is stepping up to lead. Legislators are promising their full attention when the next session begins in January.

And there, as sure as an I-5 slowdown on a rainy winter morning, the progress will all stop, halted by the price tag.

We can keep the transportation discussion moving only if the public demands action.

The prospects actually are rather promising so far. The Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation met even the highest expectations with a balanced, intelligent report. As commission leaders believe, their vision for an improved, more efficient transportation system is both bold and achievable.

Gov. Gary Locke has responded with a refreshingly assertive campaign to focus public attention on the issues. Drawing from the commission report, he will send his own recommendations to the Legislature shortly.

As Locke develops his own proposal, he will have to keep at the fore the key findings from the commission. There must be more accountability and efficiency. Existing revenues, in fact, can be spent more wisely. Still, even a bionically perfect system couldn’t reverse the trend toward increasing gridlock. There simply must be more money devoted to transportation — if we aren’t going to keep wasting a couple of billion dollars in productivity lost to gridlock.

Beyond the economic consequences, the costs of inaction are, in fact, huge. The region’s air quality has deteriorated so badly that we are in danger of slipping below federal standards. Almost every day, Puget Sound residents suffer cuts in the quality of our lives because traffic delays deny us time for family, friends and personal interests. As anyone who commutes knows, the situation is out of hand. The commission, with a largely private-sector background, insists that the state must measure the extent of the current problem and set goals for improvements.

In fact, measuring our difficulties is fairly simple. The average person here spends 70 hours a year stuck in traffic, nearly double the national average of 40. As the commission laid out, we can start to regain sanity by concentrating on steps that will reduce the lost time.

To do so anytime in the next few years will take a focus on what can be fixed quickly. Both the commission and Locke are looking carefully at "choke points" where relatively simple improvements to interchanges or specific stretches of highway could improve traffic flow dramatically. Wisely, the governor spent much of last week listening to public ideas on talk radio programs.

If the state focuses on improvements actually making a measurable difference, the need for greater efficiencies will become clearer. For instance, experience in other states has shown that projects move ahead more quickly when private contractors are allowed to design the work they do. The faster completion could also save the state a bit of money on interest.

Yet the commission found decisively that there is just not enough money to be gained from even the most rigorous efficiencies. If we want to preserve and improve the transportation situation, we have to pay more.

Will Locke and the Legislature have the courage to tackle that part of the equation? Our state politicians are unbelievably spooked by the success of tax initiatives. So far, Locke and the legislative leadership seem willing to face the issue, although there is some unfortunate waffling about whether the Legislature would actually approve a tax package or simply (and lamely) refer one to voters.

Either way, though, it really is up to us as voters. If we want improvements to the transportation system, we must let the state’s political leaders know. We have to listen to the various sides and understand the issue well enough to know what we really want. If we just let the process go its own way, it will break down, and we’ll be stuck with even worse traffic than we have today. And we’ll be paying for it by having even less time to spend with our families and friends.

For more information, visit the Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation’s Web site, www.brct.wa.gov.

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