Public Interest Transit Forum -


Fight gridlock with incentives, not rail

By Dick Nelson and Don Shakow

(published originally in the Seattle Times, opinion page, July 15, 1995)

The March defeat of the Regional Transit Authority's proposal for a rail system sent transportation planners and decision-makers back to their drawing boards. As a step toward a new plan, regional leaders have called a tri-county transportation "summit" to develop strategies that will address critical mobility issues.

Summit participants will be faced with choosing between two very different visions of our regional transportation future. Do we start rail or finish HOV? Action in the recent legislative session spotlighted the choice.

The legislature provided the RTA sufficient funding to design a second plan for submission to the voters next Spring. The RTA seems likely to propose a "starter" rail system costing up to $3 billion. A separate planning effort proposed by the legislature, which might have involved critics of the failed RTA proposal, was vetoed by the Governor. It would have been a broader "mobility plan," based on least-cost principles, encompassing enhancements to the region's roads and freeways, including completion of the HOV system, as well as paratransit, ridesharing, telecommuting, no-fare transit, and vanpool subsidies.

In seeking this "second opinion," the legislature evidently was concerned about the RTA's narrow focus on big rail systems that gobble up available resources while producing few benefits. It was also clearly putting the region on notice that state and federal transportation assistance will be limited.

The RTA spent $50 million to design a Master Plan for regional high-capacity transit that will, after 25 years and an investment of $12 billion, reduce the growth of congestion from 300 percent to 250 percent. In any other business, that would not be considered a cost-effective investment. Yet, even after its loss at the polls, the RTA board apparently remains committed to pursuing the eventual achievement of an extensive regional rail network, albeit with a smaller initial investment.

Unfortunately, cities that have invested heavily in rail have found that it has very little effect on travel patterns where development has already occurred and where road networks provide high levels of accessibility except in peak periods.

In Portland, which is expanding its light rail system, the share of trips by transit is projected to increase only slightly over the next 50 years. Neither strong growth controls, which Oregon has, nor fixed-rail transit can change the reality that our daily activities are diverse and our travel patterns complex. A rail system would provide some bus riders with a faster and more pleasant ride, but it will not prompt many people to forsake their cars.

Congestion will either continue its upward growth, or we will find other ways to convince commuters to switch to transit and ridesharing. To do this we need to take a basic step: complete and improve the regional HOV-lane system.

The need to complete the HOV system, which has strong public support, has been acknowledged in all regional transportation plans. However, it will remain an unfinished and underutilized regional system if the bulk of available resources is invested in rail.

The existing freeway HOV lanes represent a past investment of $1 billion. Another $2 billion is needed to make the system fully operational, according to state Department of Transportation estimates. This sum would allow the addition or conversion of 155 HOV lane miles, the construction of access improvements and inter-freeway connections, and the provision of safety and enforcement measures. An additional $500 million would be spent for key arterial HOV lane segments and for signal treatments that give transit and carpools priority over single-occupant vehicles.

A seamless HOV system, that provides tangible benefits in the form of reduced travel time and increased trip reliability, will convince some SOV drivers to switch to transit and ridesharing. However, for the system to work to its greatest potential, it must prove sufficiently attractive to the region's travelers to induce large numbers of people to get out of their cars and into buses, vanpools, and carpools. Auxiliary supporting measures, to overcome the attractions of driving alone, are needed.

Large sums have been spent to facilitate auto mobility, while comparatively little has been invested to improve the competitiveness of our bus system and to enhance walking and biking. Consequently, travel by any mode except the personal-use vehicle is time-consuming and in some instances quite hazardous. Buses must share congested lanes with single-occupant vehicles, bicyclists are often forced to compete for space with cars in the same narrow lane, and sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities are in many places non-existent.

Although drivers contribute considerable tax revenues to build and maintain our road system, they pay only about half the full costs of driving. Many indirect costs go unpaid. These include the costs of subsidized parking, congestion that drivers impose on other drivers, air and water pollution impacts, uninsured accident costs, and energy subsidies.

Can we devise measures to enable our region to make full use of the HOV system and reduce single-occupant vehicle use? We believe such measures do exist and that this goal is achievable for modest cost.

Numerous opportunities have been identified but few have been exploited. These measures, which may be generally termed "incentives", would increase transit patronage and ridesharing. For transit, they include: routes and vehicles that can meet the demand for short trips, longer hours of service, more frequent service, and better traveler information. Examples of incentives that could increase ridesharing: computer-based information systems that more rapidly connect drivers and riders, the substitution of cash travel allowances for free employer-provided parking, and the subsidization of vanpools at the same level as transit.

An aggressive program of incentives, coupled with completion of the HOV system, would constitute an integrated, synergistic approach to our regional transportation problem. Together they could produce significant benefits in the form of increased regional mobility. Since most incentives cost real money, both public and private, they need to be budgeted along with capacity investments. The RTA has not done this budgeting, but should.

If a rail system is built, even beginning with a scaled down first phase, taxpayers are unlikely to authorize additional funds for HOV system completion and to make the investment needed for its effective operation.

A least-cost solution to gridlock will emphasize affordable investments that make the present transportation system work better by adding to the speed, reliability, and comfort of the passenger choices it can offer to drivers. Starter rail is no way to start.

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Last modified: February 07, 2011