By Laura Pierce
In the future, you could be paying for your right to use roads the same way you pay your utilities — a bill based on exactly how much you use.
According to Paula Hammond, secretary of transportation, and the state’s highest transportation official, the technology to do that isn’t that far down the road.
“It’s 10 to 15 years out,” she said, noting that kind of direct-user fee could be part of the equation for future transportation funding.
But in the meantime, there is a complex – not to mention expensive – series of transportation needs that the Puget Sound area has to resolve, or at least come to terms with.
Traffic congestion; freight issues; super-efficient hybrid vehicles slowing the state’s gas tax to more of a trickle: all of these elements are adding up to a Gordian’s Knot of worries on which the state is working to get a handle.
Politics played a part
Part of the issues today come from a lack of decision-making years earlier. Hammond described “a good 15 years of stagnation,” in the state transportation system, starting in the 1980s. It’s only been over the last five years that Washington has regained its focus to aggressively begin addressing for advances to its system, she said.
That earlier lag, Hammond noted, was due partly to lack of a clear direction.
“Puget Sound politics – people say it’s like no other,” Hammond said, noting for years it was difficult for lawmakers to find a common vision on what, exactly, had to happen to advance the state’s road system.
“I think that lack of decision-making and second-guessing, all of that has not served us well,” she said, adding, “we love to debate things.”
It wasn’t always like that. In the 1970s, Washington road-planning was ahead of the curve, including its development of high-occupancy vehicle Lanes.
“There was great vision in the 1970s,” Hammond said, noting the HOV lanes were a significant advance in transportation.
Today, she said, “we have a 300-mile (core HOV system) and 250 miles of that is in place.”
That HOV system continues to be a major asset in the Puget Sound transportation system.
Washington has invested more than $1.5 billion in state and federal funding over the past 40 years in its HOV lanes. The lanes continue to provide a steam valve for congestion and an incentive for carpoolers, today moving about 35 percent of people on the roads in 19 percent of the cars. But just like everywhere else on state roads, congestion in the HOV lanes is increasing, thanks to more drivers, and SUVs with greater carrying capacity.
But there’s a fix in sight, and the way it’s funded could be a blueprint for the way future transportation needs in Washington are covered.
Hammond called attention to one of DOT’s latest projects: high-occupancy tolling lanes, or HOT Lanes. It’s a concept allowing non-carpooling drivers to use the HOV lanes, by charging them for the privilege.
For more than a year DOT has been operating a test segment of State Route 167 in South King County. And it’s working.
“What we’ve learned over the year or so we’ve had it – we saw people buying their way in for a dollar, to get a 10-minute savings on travel,” Hammond said, noting 30,000 people a month are paying to use the lane. “We’ve learned people think it’s worth something to pay to get in to reduce their travel time.”
Given the promise of HOT lanes have shown, DOT is working to expand HOT lanes on more of Puget Sound’s clogged roadways – starting with I-405, where road-expansion work is ongoing, and HOV lanes are already present.
In terms of traffic flow on the heavily used highway, “you see a natural break near Bellevue,” Hammond said. “But we’re looking at the entire (405) corridor. And as it comes through the 167 interchange and carries down there as well.”
The project could be constructed in pieces, so drivers using one segment actually would be paying for constructing the next segment.
Hammond said the Legislature has asked DOT to analyze the project this legislative session, and then to come back with a report for the next session.
“So we’re doing the work now and coming back in 2010, to see if they’ll give us the authority to proceed with that project,” she said.
A new funding concept
The concept of paying as you go, to fund specific projects like the HOT lanes, is gaining serious momentum as a payment solution for transportation issues.
Right now, the state gas tax is the main source of dollars – and it’s a dwindling one.
For all the good things today’s fuel-efficient cars represent, it also means more drivers pay less at the pump – and therefore pump fewer dollars into the transportation system.
“We see it’s a loser,” Hammond said, adding the gas tax also fails to keep up with inflation.
Given the realities of funding – tolling is going to become more prevalent, Hammond said.
One event that brought that into clearer focus was when voters balked in 2007 at the Roads and Transit measure – a major transportation package that combined resources for improvements in roads, bus service and rail.
While Hammond said there was a lot of debate about why the measure failed, it was a telling moment when Puget Sound voters the next year passed the Sound Transit 2 measure, taxing themselves for a major expansion of light rail in the region. “That was good information – people did want the transit measure to pass,” Hammond said.
Of RTID, “I think it was too much of a taxpayer investment,” Hammond said. “But I don’t think people said they didn’t want those projects.”
And with those projects still on the drawing board, there needs to be a revenue source to fund them.
“We are gravitating toward tolling,” she added.
When asked how she personally would resolve the funding issue, Hammond said drivers investing directly in the roads they use is a critical part of the equation.
“I think the users need to pay,” she explained. “They need to pay for the value they get out of that system. The cost to drive a mile in Wenatchee isn’t close to what it costs to drive a mile in Seattle.”
Top road projects
When asked what she felt the highest-priority road projects are Puget Sound, Hammond listed four, with the focus on safety: The Alaskan Way viaduct replacement, the Highway 520 floating bridge, completing the 405 corridor and increasing the efficiency of Interstate 5 as it runs through Puget Sound. Hammond confessed that the 520 floating bridge, due for completion in 2014, and the viaduct, which should be under construction and open to traffic by 2015, have both caused her sleepless nights.
Future transportation picture
Hammond pointed to a future transportation picture in the Puget Sound region that encompasses many things – from a cultural shift toward alternative modes of transportation, to technology making it easier for people to say where they are working from.
“I think we’re already seeing the transition now,” she said, of people leaving their cars in the garage and taking the train or bus, although these modes, she added will never replace personal vehicles.
“Sound Transit has opened its first (light rail) link, and we’re seeing heavy commuter rail use already. Local transit services has seen growth,” she said, adding that as technology continues to improve, “I think you’re going to see some people altering their work schedules, and doing more work from home.”
And as far as transportation funding in the future, she said, “I do think we’ll see more tolling.”
But state officials need to tread lightly in ushering in those changes, especially when it comes to how public dollars are being spent.
“We need to take our time to have this public conversation,” Hammond said. “Until we explain that well to people, we’re not going to have that public buy-in.”
Laura Pierce is Editor of the Kent Reporter. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.