Public Interest Transit Forum Lead Story

Have RTA Plan’s Architects Lost Sight of the Problem?

By the Forum Editors

What is the most important regional transportation problem that needs fixing? Although the answer now might be different as the spotlight shifts to road and bridge repair needs, every past survey of citizens, especially those who commute on a daily basis, has provided one answer: Congestion. And every piece of RTA literature leads with an expression of concern about congestion, implying that the RTA plan can provide the remedy. This story will shed some light on the veracity of that claim.

Not to be forgotten, too, are other problems that public transit can potentially help address, and by which we can measure the cost-effectiveness of a major new transit investment. The principal ones are:

Although opinions differ, these problems as well as congestion have generated considerable concern and any public investment strategy should be evaluated for the likely effect on each. Available forecast information indicates that carrying out the RTA Plan will yield very little impact on any of these problems.

Let’s begin with congestion. First, the sources of congestion need to be understood. It has been estimated that more than half of the time we lose in traffic snarls on our freeways and arterials results from accidents or other roadway incidents. Congestion from these sources is reduced by better driving habits, better vehicle maintenance, safety devices, and faster incident response and cleanup, not transit expenditures.

The second major source of congestion is the propensity for too many to use a roadway at the same time -- congestion that occurs in peak commute periods and increasingly on weekends when many people go out for shopping, entertainment, and recreation.

RTA documents provide no clear indication of the impact the Plan will actually have on the level of congestion stemming from either of these sources. An appendix to the Plan gives a number for the reduction in daily hours of delay. To arrive at an estimate of the impact that the Plan will have on congestion, one must explore the fine print in the 1995 Metropolitan Transportation Plan (MTP) produced by the Puget Sound Regional Council. Using their regional transportation model (a sophisticated computer model that predicts future transportation demand and its effects), the PSRC estimated the total delay associated with a major investment in both rail transit and HOV lanes.

By comparing both figures, one can estimate that the RTA Plan will reduce congestion by less than one percent from 2010 levels. (Click here for the PSRC’s congestion forecast)

The PSRC’s conclusion -- similar to results from analysis in other cities around the world -- is that only financial disincentives directed at single-occupant vehicle drivers, in the form of pricing mechanisms (i.e. tolls), can significantly reduce congestion growth.

What about the other major problems - the need for transportation equity and the reduction of environmental impacts of driving?

Equity: The RTA Plan does not indicate how social equity would be improved over that provided by existing transportation programs and services. Public transit, in several forms, currently provides mobility for many citizens who could not otherwise afford private transportation. Each of the region’s transit systems offer reduced bus fares for senior citizens regardless of income. Each system operates, or contracts for, small buses, vans, and taxis that provide door-to-door service for the disabled and elderly under federal mandates. The region spent an estimated $20 million in 1995 for these fare subsidies and special transit services.

Equity issues should receive serious and continuing consideration. Such needs are best addressed by designing transportation programs that fit specific situations. In particular, as employment centers are dispersed more widely as the region grows, access to jobs may become difficult for some low-income citizens. There are currently several job access programs that involve cooperative efforts between employers and transit agencies.

The impact of the taxes used to fund the RTA Plan should also be of major concern. Although the state law that established the RTA requires equity considerations to be used in selecting funding sources, there is no evidence that the RTA has done this. We will deal with the tax equity issue in a future lead story.

Environment: Private vehicles are a major source of air pollution. Again, RTA documents imply that transit will solve the problem. This is an inaccurate conclusion for several reasons. The number of trips in private vehicles will continue to grow and dominate all trips. Currently, only 4 percent of all motorized trips in the region are by transit. The PSRC estimates that this figure will increase to just 6 percent in 2020 under the MTP that includes the RTA Plan. However, daily vehicle miles traveled by private vehicle will grow by 58 percent in that period.

Consequently, the private vehicle will continue to be the solution to the problem it has helped produce. Improved auto exhaust technology, state-mandated vehicle inspection and maintenance, evaporative emission controls, and oxygenated fuels have already contributed to a significant reduction of carbon monoxide and ozone, and have helped bring the region into conformity with federal air quality standards.

As the region grows and trips by motorized vehicle increase, new measures to control vehicle emissions may be required. The question then will be what control measures are most cost-effective? In a major study (Clean Air Through Transportation, August 1993), the United States Environmental Protection Agency, concluded that there is significant potential for further progress through technological improvements, and that "traditional methods of altering transportation behavior such as construction of transit and high occupancy vehicle lanes have not been shown to substantially reduce pollution.”

RTA documents also suggest that the Plan supports energy efficiency goals. But the numbers provided are very misleading. National data indicates that the car has become as energy efficient as all forms of transit except commuter trains. As transit service has been extended to more daily hours and suburban destinations, lower average passenger loads and more deadheading have progressively reduced energy efficiency. Click here for the misleading view of energy consumption provided by the RTA staff.

Land use: Sprawl is somewhat easier to address. The RTA Plan makes no wild claim that it will control low-density and single-use development. It is somewhat more modest, saying that its high capacity transit systems will, by improving mobility within the urban areas, allow them to grow “while preserving rural areas for future generations.” The fact is that the number of people and the number of auto trips affected by any new regional high capacity system will be very small in comparison to the total population and trips. The vast majority of residence location decisions have been and will be made independent of high capacity transit routes and stations, and will only be circumscribed by local zoning.

RTA documents provide no data as to the Plan's impact on land use and vice versa. The only published prediction of the impact of growth management policies on travel was made by the Regional Transit Project, the RTA's immediate predecessor. The Environmental Impact Statement for that study states that implementation of Vision 2020 (the region's land use plan) would reduce daily automobile trips by 0.7 percent from their expanded level under a much more ambitious ($13.8 billion) transportation plan than proposed by the RTA.

Another clue that land use alone has very little effect on travel is provided by a major study just completed in suburban Portland. This work, undertaken by the 1000 Friends of Oregon and funded by the Federal Highway Administration, the EPA, and the Energy Foundation, found that land use, even in a partially developed suburban area, was a minor factor in producing more transit and nonmotorized trips. Far more important are monetary incentives and disincentives that might be applied to private vehicle drivers. In the Oregon study, these incentives were parking charges ($3 per day) for work trips by single occupant vehicle, free transit passes for all commuters, and peak-hour road pricing.

If the RTA Plan has such little effect on congestion and other transportation problems, one might ask why make any major new investments? We will return to this question in a future lead story when we consider alternative strategies.

The Editors

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