Public Interest Transit Forum -

Statement from Roger Pence

Transportation Consultant to the Regional Express

OPPOSITION FROM "COST": EMPTY BOWLS The bulk of our comments below respond to issues raised by the organized opposition to Regional Express, the campaign committee that calls itself COST--Citizens Opposed to Sitting in Traffic. One would think that a committee so named would be an RTA support group--after all, the RTA has the only plan offering an alternative to sitting in traffic. But no, this is just the old anti-transit FACT committee ("Families Opposed to Congestion and Taxes") resurrected from last year, but with a much smaller base of support.

COST members like to say there are better alternatives somewhere, that we should reject the RTA again, and begin the planning process all over again. But when we look closely, we discover they come to the table with an empty bowl, or more precisely, three empty bowls.

COST'S EMPTY BOWL NO. 1: "LET'S BUILD MORE FREEWAYS" "RTA foes say our future is freeways." The headline in the Seattle Times (Monday, October 14th) says it all.

We know the COST committee opposes the RTA's Regional Express rail/bus/HOV plan, but people have been confused about what COST would propose instead to deal with traffic. Now, thanks to reporter Keith Ervin's article, their primary alternative is clear: Build more freeways, and add lanes to existing freeways.

Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr. and Issaquah developer Skip Rowley want to go back to building urban freeways again like we did in the 1960's. According to the Times article, Freeman looks at the backup leading to the Evergreen Point bridge and cannot understand why a second bridge has not been built. At the risk of simply restating the obvious, allow us to explain why.

First, we don't have the money. For example, when I-90 was built several years ago, the cost was $200 million per mile, and the federal government provided 90 percent of the funds. Today, that cost would be over $250 million per mile, with the federal government providing a much smaller share.

Contrast this with electric light rail transit in the Regional Express plan. Light rail will cost us on average only $72 million per mile, with the federal government reliably expected to cover about a third of the cost. And that single light rail line can carry more people than a freeway like I-90!

Second, urban freeways are unreliable. As a freeway becomes more and more congested, vehicle speeds slow down, and capacity actually decreases. One fender-bender can tie up traffic for hours. Rush hour travel on urban freeways has become totally unpredictable and thus unreliable: a trip that takes 12 minutes one day can take 40 minutes the next.

Third, where would Kemper Freeman's new Lake Washington bridge connect? The I-5 freeway in Seattle is full in both directions for several hours each day, and it cannot accept any more traffic. If Freeman or anyone else wants to pump more vehicles onto I-5, then we will also have to widen I-5 through the heart of Seattle--at truly astronomical costs.

Fourth, urban freeways consume enormous amounts of very expensive real estate. The right-of-way for an eight-lane freeway like I-90 is at least five times wider than a comparable light rail line. Freeway advocates always try to talk in abstractions, never specifics about whose homes, businesses, and neighborhoods would be destroyed to build their folly.

Fifth, the environmental costs of urban freeways are unacceptable. We are well past that point in history when people will accept the high volumes of noise and air pollution generated by new urban freeways. Electric light rail trains, in contrast, are quiet and pollution-free.

No, more urban freeways are not the answer, and neither are they even part of the answer. To Kemper Freeman, when one freeway fills up, you just go out and build another one like Los Angeles did. The problem is, where do you stop? Los Angeles didn't stop until the region became unlivable. Los Angeles has now started building a rail transit system, but they may have waited too long.

COST'S EMPTY BOWL NO. 2: "MORE BUSES AND HOV ARE ENOUGH" There are other elements in the COST committee who are advocating other approaches that are equally wrong-headed. Some are saying that more buses and HOV lanes alone will do the job, that we don't need the RTA because METRO alone can provide all the bus service we need in King County.

The problem with this approach is that traffic congestion is grinding down the existing bus system. Every year it takes longer and longer for buses to service their routes.

Metro's own data indicate that over the past three years, three-quarters of its growth in annual bus service hours has been absorbed by "schedule maintenance"--not providing new transit service, but merely allowing existing service to stay on a schedule as congestion gets worse and worse.

Studies have shown that in a few years, even with the bus tunnel, downtown Seattle will become overcrowded with buses during peak hours. Only rail can provide the capacity that will be needed; the responsible thing to do is start building those rail facilities now, rather than waiting until they are even more expensive.

HOV lanes will help in outlying areas--as indeed they do in the Regional Express plan. But HOV lanes are not the answer in high-density corridors such as the main north-south corridor through Seattle. HOV lanes in both directions cannot be added to I-5 through the heart of Seattle without widening the freeway at enormous expense. Such an investment might buy us a few years of traffic growth, but sooner or later, we will be back to where we are now: In need of rail transit in high-density corridors.

COST'S EMPTY BOWL NO. 3: "DO NOTHING, AND HOPE SOME PEOPLE MOVE TO BOISE" A third COST faction says, literally, "do nothing," and maybe some people will give up and move to Boise. Yes, a COST spokesman actually advocated this at the King County Council committee of the whole (Monday, Oct. 7th)! Apparently their idea is to let congestion overwhelm the region, then some people will move away in disgust, and those of us who are left will be able to move around on the existing transportation system--in the economic shambles that remain.

As Seattle Times reporter David Shaefer noted in a broadcast on KCTS Channel 9, economic recession does cures traffic congestion, but that hardly makes it good public policy.

CONCLUSION No matter which alternative you hear from the opposition, and you will hear them all from time to time, they have no alternative that provides a workable alternative to congestion. The only plan before us that works is on the November 5th ballot, and that's Regional Express---the RTA plan.

We have delayed long enough. The time has come. Let's vote YES and begin building a better transportation future for the next generation.

Return to the Public Interest Transit Forum home page.

Last Modified: February 07, 2011