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 results.
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.
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Last modified: September 28, 1996