Public Interest Transportation Forum -

Position Statement from
Emory Bundy, Director of Research
Bullitt Foundation, Seattle

This position statement was supported by four other members of RTA's Regional Outreach Committee. Their were 15 members on the Outreach Committee and their vote on the final report was 9-5.

  May 20, 1996

TO:  Dick Ford
  Chairman, Regional Outreach Committee
  Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority
Minority Report of Emory Bundy:
With deep regret I cannot in good conscience support the majority report of
the Regional Outreach Committee.  The RTA proposal is the product of the hard
work and good intentions of a large number of public officials and dedicated
staff members, seeking to address an issue of towering importance to the
future of the Puget Sound community.  Nevertheless, the public interest will
not be served by placing the RTA's proposal before the people in its current
form.  My views can be summarized briefly:
The trajectory of our transportation crisis poses an acute threat to the
quality of life and the economic well-being of the people of this region.
The region is dominated by the automobile, the growth of vehicle miles
traveled is markedly steeper than the relentless growth of population,
congestion is a major problem steadily growing more acute, support for
alternative forms of transportation like bicycling has been penurious (though
improving), and the public transit system -- though fairly good for an
American city -- underserves the substantial share of people who depend on
transit.  The automobile has an unparalleled ability to conveniently and
securely transport an individual or family to virtually any destination.  It
also is the nation's primary environmental problem in terms of land consumed,
air and water polluted, and the need for vast storm sewer systems to drain
impermeable surfaces.  These problems are exacerbated by a long-established
pattern of low-density, sprawling communities, and scattered, parking-lot
dominated commercial centers and business parks.
However, we will not continue to expand our driving and sprawling at the rate
to which we have become accustomed, because constraining limits are upon us.
Congestion is a particularly unwelcome harbinger.
I am in general agreement with the Puget Sound Regional Council's 1995
Regional Transportation Plan and regard it as an enlightened document.  I
applaud its emphasis on increasing the efficiency with which we use the
existing transportation system, including pricing strategies and better land
use, its call to moderate demand through aggressive Transportation Demand
Management strategies, improve public transit service, pay greater attention
to the benign possibilities inherent in bicycling and walking, and affirm the
need to make investments in new road capacity in developing areas.  The
spirit of the plan is infused with an appreciation of limited resources and
calls for careful investments -- the phrase "cost-effective" is oft-repeated
-- that will optimize tangible improvements to the system.
The beginning of wisdom in facing the transportation crisis is to recognize
the extent to which the automobile is subsidized.  The consequences of
pollution and land consumption are borne by everyone, not just the automobile
owner.  Road construction and highway maintenance are subsidized by the
general taxpayer.  The costs and suffering resulting from accidents are
widely distributed throughout society.  The import of oil is the leading
cause of the nation's dire, adverse balance-of-payments; that fact has
negative implications for every citizen.  The typical employer provides
costly parking space free to employees, and withholds a comparable benefit
from those who do not drive.  The US tax code encourages such pernicious
discrimination.  There are, in short, an array of deeply-ingrained habits and
interests that make reform in this field challenging.  But congestion has
begun to focus the community's attention.
The traditional tendency to distribute pork barrel public works transportation
largesse should not be tolerated.  The single most critical step needed, to
begin to redress the looming transportation crisis, is to use the region's
existing transportation infrastructure more efficiently.  The capacity of the
average car is five or six; the average occupancy rate on the freeway is 1.1
persons per car -- so, clearly, there is a vast opportunity for more
efficient use of both car and roadway.  (As noted in the majority ROC report,
a high-occupancy vehicle [HOV] lane on I-5 carries 6,000 people per hour,
while the single-occupancy vehicle [SOV] lanes carry but 2,000.)  Some
companies, most notably Boeing, encourage and support vanpools for employees,
a very efficient means of transport that should be expanded far beyond its
current level.  On average only about 15% of the seats on the buses are
occupied; it is not uncommon that seats are vacant even during rush hours; we
have far to go before we use buses efficiently.  Little is done to
accommodate bicycling, the world's most efficient transportation mode,
healthy exercise, essentially non-polluting, with full operating costs borne
by the traveler.
The Washington State Energy Strategy Commission, State Legislature, and King
County Council all have called for least-cost planning, modeled on its
successful application to the similarly-complex and large-scale regional
electric energy sector.  The Puget Sound Regional Council has begun the
process of implementing "integrated transportation planning."  To give an
idea of what this could mean for regional mobility and relief from
congestion, consider this:  If one lane of the existing 520 bridge, each way,
was converted to HOV, and if the result was akin to that of the HOV lane on
I-5, the number of people crossing the 520 bridge during the rush hours could
be doubled!  Even with an inferior outcome, it could easily increase by 50%.
Or consider this:  Senator Kathleen Drew successfully proposed a recent bill
to the State Legislature to provide a very modest incentive to encourage
employers to motivate employees to bus, carpool, bike, or walk to work.  If
it succeeds as intended (there is little question it will succeed -- but the
level of incentive may be insufficient to succeed in full) it will, in four
years time, remove 16,000 cars from the road during rush hours, for $1.5
million.  For purposes of comparison, that is one-third the time it will take
to build the RTA's phase one rail project, will remove two-thirds as many
cars from the highways, at one-900ths the cost.  If the incentive subsidy was
allocated ten times as much money it still would cost but one percent of the
rail proposal -- and cost far less to maintain.
We need a good public transit system, as a matter of equity for those who
depend on it, and as a more efficient means to move people to and from
congested sites, like downtown Seattle, and through congested corridors.  In
recognition of this, METRO's transit operations currently are subsidized more
than $150 million annually, 75% of its budget.  Beyond that are major capital
investments.  The financial ability of the community to subsidize transit
operations is inherently limited, as is its political willingness.  It is
essential, therefore, that further capital investments and subsidies for
transit operations be prudently undertaken, and that money spent result in
commensurate expansions in service.
That is a standard the RTA's current proposal fails to meet, by a great
margin.  Performance seems not to have been an important focus of the entire
process.  The RTA, in fact, formulated a draft plan and widely circulated it
to test its reception without an accompanying analysis of what the plan might
be expected to deliver, in terms of enhanced transportation services.  That
evaluation, titled Economic benefits, system use and transportation impacts
of the RTA ten-year system plan, was only released on April 24, less than
four weeks ago, so few members of the public have had an opportunity to
assess it before responding to the draft plan.  I notified the chairman of
the Regional Outreach Committee that, upon receiving the RTA's declaration of
the benefits to be expected, I would solicit expert assistance to evaluate
the reasonableness of the cost and ridership projections, and the resulting
benefits.  I did so, from the prominent economic consulting firm,
ECONorthwest. Their findings are as follows:
[W]e have concluded that the RTA report significantly overstates the net
benefits of the proposed ten-year system plan....To give the RTA the benefit
of the doubt, we accepted at face value all of the capital and operating cost
assumptions (which appear low) and all of the estimates about the dollar
value of the benefits (which appear high).  We reestimated the net benefits
of the system excluding four categories of benefits that represent obvious
double counting or that were simply not credible.  We then recalculated the net 
present value of the system using the flow of costs and benefits...
According to our analysis, the present value of the costs of the project
exceed the present value of the benefits by $1 billion.  In other words, the
region would be worse off by $1 billion if the RTA built the proposed system
than if it did nothing at all.  [Emphasis added.]  Remember this is using the
RTA's own estimates of benefits which we think are probably too high.  All we
did is exclude the categories that our expert review panel for the [Puget
Sound Regional Council] project said should not be included in these types of
evaluations and do a proper present value calculation.
Accordingly, I cannot support the current proposal.  The net effect will be
to set us back -- to squander scarce resources on initiatives that will not
return a commensurate value to the citizens of the region.  If enacted the
proposal will substantially burden the region's taxpayers during the ten-year
project, for the subsequent 25-year period when the bonds are being paid
back, and by a large, permanent, additional tax to subsidize transit
operations.  The tax will be regressive, and fall heaviest on lower-income
households.  If such a burden promised to bring meaningful improvements to
our condition would merit support.  But it will make no discernible impact on
the worsening congestion problem, and do little to improve the lot of people
who depend on transit.  By poorly applying such substantial resources the
RTA's proposal will foreclose other opportunities that promise affirmative

The chairman asked for comments about particular elements of the RTA's
proposal:  HOV lanes (and accompanying bus enhancements), commuter rail, and
light rail.  Since the only analysis I have been able to have expertly
reviewed deals with the entire package, not its component parts, the
following remarks are tentative:
1.  HOV lanes:  My estimation is that the data would indicate this would
prove to be a good investment.  Legitimate concerns have been raised about
who should pay for what (between WSDOT and the RTA).  I concur with the
prevailing view that DOT should pay for the HOV lanes and RTA the necessary
means to connect them to surface streets and stations.  Concern also has been
raised about how the lanes will be managed.  The primary objective should be
optimal access and speed for transit, with more stringent passengers-per-car
requirements for HOV autos if necessary to maintain an even, reliable flow of
traffic.  The current policy that HOV lanes can only be added, never created
out of existing lanes, is retrogressive.  It amounts to a declaration that
under no circumstances can measures be taken to increase the efficient use of
existing structures. 
The RTA proposes that the communities of the region receive improved and
extended bus service, and the completed HOV lanes will better link
communities via express buses.  Further, transfers between jurisdictions will
be streamlined.  These sound like sensible investments, though I would like
to see the results of an independent review of the specific numbers. 
2.  Commuter rail:  I had expected to support commuter rail for several
reasons:  Some jurisdictions, like Chicago's METRA, have instituted very
successful commuter rail service.  It obtained lines at modest capital cost
and provides rail service from outlying communities.  METRA's farebox return,
almost 50%, is considerably more favorable than King County METRO's 25% fare
return on its buses.  Also, intercity rail probably is viable between
Vancouver BC and Portland, or Eugene, Oregon, and commuter rail could
contribute to its viability.  Critical investments are needed to improve the
region's rail freight system.  If there were compatible synergies with
commuter and intercity rail the region could benefit in multiple ways.
 However, the RTA's proposal features staggering capital and operating costs
for its commuter rail, against meager anticipated ridership.  Under those
terms it is not a responsible expenditure of RTA funds.
3.  Light rail:  The tunnel project is an exceedingly expensive, high-risk
venture.  If it succeeded in meeting both cost and ridership projections it
would nevertheless represent a major net economic loss to the region.  It is
implausible that ridership projections (70 - 90,000 trips per day) can be
met.  That would make it one of the three most-used light rail systems in
America, the others being considerably more extensive.  They do not have to
share a tunnel with express buses, as will the RTA with the downtown Seattle
tunnel.  (If it does not, the express buses from outlying areas of the county
will be slowed considerably, and Seattle's downtown streets will become more
congested.)  It seems doubtful that many thousands of people will voluntarily
find their way, daily, to one of two rail stations north of the Lake
Washington Ship Canal, travel under the canal to a single stop for all of
Capitol Hill (for those desiring to go to Capitol Hill), emerge from the
equivalent of 15 stories underground, then seek out their final destinations.
 Especially when, for the great share of people, the option is a 15 minute
bus ride originating much nearer their point of departure and ending much
nearer their final destination.  (Of course, if bus service is severely
downgraded more people would be driven to use the train.)
The RTA claims that a light rail line over the Ship Canal, along the I-5
corridor, would be comparable in cost and attract markedly fewer riders.  So,
for the present it also appears to be an unacceptable venture.

Return to the Public Interest Transportation Forum home page.

Last modified: September 28, 1996