An archival posting in the Public Interest Transportation Forum


April 1996

An Open Letter from the Environmental Community to the Regional Transit Authority

There is a great deal at stake with the Regional Transit Project. Better regional transit is critical to the health of our environment, economy, and communities. This letter represents a consensus established through several environmental roundtables in the last few months, as well as many years of working to promote an environmentally responsible regional transit plan.

Protecting our region's quality of life will require fundamental changes in our approach to providing mobility for people and businesses. Although the RTA is only part of the solution, it should lay the groundwork for these changes.

An effective Regional Transit Project should offer more than a victory at the ballot box. A successful Project is measured by real contributions to a cleaner environment, healthier communities, and stronger economy.

A sound Regional Transit Proposal should offer:

The Draft Plan does not meet these standards. It offers far too little progress towards a more balanced transportation system or to a cleaner environment, healthier communities, and a stronger economy. It is not a plan that informed environmentalists can support. The Draft Plan's most severe flaws include the following:

1) The tremendously expensive and risky Capitol Hill tunnel is not a smart investment. The modest gains in new riders do not justify the construction risks and incredibly high cost of the tunnel. The potential for tremendous cost overruns is disconcerting. We are not convinced that the RTA has made a good faith effort to compare the tunnel's cost-effectiveness to alternative alignments. We believe there are more productive ways to invest $900 million than a tunnel that costs $300 million per mile. Additionally, locating the end of the rail line at NE 45th does not reinforce the urban center policies adopted for the University District.

2) Huge investments in additional roadway capacity will not solve our region's transportation problems. Building new HOV lanes for two-person carpools will not make any meaningful contributions to reducing pollution, improving land use, conserving resources, or reducing driving. When added to existing capacity, new HOV lanes actually increase single occupant vehicle (SOV) trips and degrade air quality -- removing carpools from the general purpose lanes creates more room for SOVs. Center HOV lanes also facilitate long commutes, encouraging urban sprawl. There is some evidence that two-person HOV lanes even reduce transit ridership (people leave the bus for carpools). Moreover, funding HOV construction with the RTA's sales tax is a fiscal injustice. HOV lanes should be funded with gas tax revenues, and the region's taxpayers should not foot the bill for the state's facilities.

A seamless HOV system can help solve our transportation problems. But an effective and well-managed HOV program would focus on converting existing lanes, target 3+ carpools, and use state funding.

3) The Plan is based on a parochial definition of equity that undermines its usefulness. While it is important that all the subregions experience some direct benefits from regional transit. the RTA's approach to equity makes "pork-barreling" to subregions a higher priority than system effectiveness. It disregards the regional benefits of transit investments, requiring subregions to finance investments that benefit the entire region. It also ignores the disproportional transportation burdens placed on urban centers.

4) The RTA's plan appears to be the product of regional deal-making and efforts to buy the support of powerful special interests, rather than a strategic effort to resolve the region's transportation dilemmas as efficiently as possible. Once again, success is measured by efficient and effective contributions to a cleaner environment, healthier communities, and stronger economy, not by a victory at the polls. A good regional transit plan is based on good science as well as politics.

Good transportation planning is grounded in cost-efficiency. Extensive tunneling and full grade separation do help transit speed and reliability, as can building new HOV lanes and access ramps. They are tremendously expensive, however, and the benefits (often distressingly modest) do not necessarily justify the costs. We believe that there are more cost-effective ways to improve transit performance and increase ridership. Signal pre-emption devices and other strategies can provide very similar benefits, at a far lower cost.

The Plan uses regional transit funds to finance state-responsibility highway investments (including another SR 520 study), sprinkles access ramps throughout the region without any real analytical justification, does not have any commuter rail stops between downtown Seattle and Snohomish County, and is driven by equity formulas that restrict capital and debt costs to the subarea in which they're generated. These elements are not the product of a thoughtful effort to find the most efficient strategies for solving our region's transportation problems.

Ironically, we do not believe that the Draft Plan is based on good enough politics to win at the polls. We do not share the RTA's confidence that people who voted against the last plan were demanding more roads. It seems far more likely that the main problem was paying higher taxes for an unrealistically large proposal.

5) Perhaps the biggest problem with the Draft Plan is its opportunity cost. The proposal not only fails to offer an adequate contribution towards resolving our region's transportation problems, but its consumption of economic and political capital forestalls the pursuit of other, more effective efforts -- possibly for decades. A close look at the long-term debt and operating costs of the plan reinforce this point. Future extensions will require voter approval of additional, cumulative tax increases and/or more debt, while we are still trying to pay off the debt from the first phase.

For us, this means we would rather see no plan at all than a bad one. We are not willing to sacrifice our hopes for solving the region's transportation problems in return for a dozen flyover ramps, sixteen miles of light rail, more HOV lanes, some good express bus routes, and a billion dollars in debt.

Please note that there are important elements of the Plan that we do support. We believe, in fact, that these elements could provide a technically sound, winning proposal:

1. We support a regional trunk bus network.

2. We support cost-effective investments in light rail designed to support growth management goals.

3. We support a modest commuter rail demonstration program coordinated with the state rail program.

4. We support efforts to test new transit technologies.

5. We believe the Plan's cost and timing ($3.7 billion over 10 years) are far more realistic than the proposal that failed last March.

A proposal focused on these elements -- combined With a smaller district centered on the I-5 corridor and excluding areas that voted overwhelmingly against the last plan -- seems almost guaranteed to win. Reinforced by effective transportation demand management strategies, this approach could begin to resolve our region's transportation patterns. We would campaign enthusiastically for such a proposal.

The Puget Sound region desperately needs a balanced transportation system. We fervently want to support effective, efficient solutions. We respectfully urge you to return to the drawing boards and revise the proposal to respond to the concerns presented in this letter. Without significant changes, regrettably, the environmental community cannot endorse the Plan as an effective long-range transportation investment.

Signed by

Dan Cantrell, Washington Environmental Council

Gary Pivo, 1000 Friends of Washington

Preston Schiller, Sierra Club

Don Shakow, Institute for Washington's Future

Joanna Grist, King County Conservation Voters

Ron Schultz, National Audubon Society

David Ortman, Friends of the Earth

Mike Skehan, ALT-TRANS

Bill Svensson, Puget Sound Light Rail Society

Susie Stephens, Northwest Bicycle Federation