At a meeting in Seattle last week, lawmakers heard that the funding gap for replacing the storm- and seismically-vulnerable, crowded four-lane SR 520 bridge across Lake Washington can be shaved from $2.6 billion to $2.38 billion through a sales tax deferral of $220 million. They also had a look at the current menu of gap-closers. It includes more borrowing against electronic tolling revenues, plus higher toll rates on the 520 bridge, and especially, tolling of the parallel I-90 bridge. As ever, tolling’s a flash point, but it needn’t be ugly. It can equitable, and farsighted. Metro Puget Sound needs a comprehensive regional highway corridor electronic tolling plan, typically with express “HOT” lanes aside free lanes, and higher rates at peak hours.
Yesterday in Crosscut, the Northwest online daily journal of politics and public policy, I published a piece titled “Time to Go ‘All In’ On Tolls.” It starts this way: The four-lane Evergreen Point Floating Bridge across Lake Washington on State Route 520 is a relic of a bygone era, congested and disaster prone. How urgent is the need for a planned six-lane replacement? The Washington State Department of Transportation has gone so far as to graphically model on YouTube how the bridge might buckle under duress, threatening lives and paralyzing the region’s highway network. And is the region stepping up to the challenge? Less than half the funding is secured. The Seattle-side configuration is still being debated. More broadly, the project begs a Read More ›
When Congress passes a new $450 billion six-year surface transportation reauthorization sometime in the next 18 months or so, it would directly yield $90 billion per annum, split nationwide over its term. That probably sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not. As the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s blueprint for the reauthorization bill notes on p. 7, needed U.S. road and transit projects require $225 billion to $340 billion per year in public and private investment over each of the next 50 years – this according to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission. Even scaled-down needs identified by the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure and Finance Commission – also cited in the committee’s reauthorization blueprint – are sizable: $200 billion per year in public investment to maintain and improve the most essential components of the nation’s highway and transit systems.
The expected $48 billion in 2009 ARRA stimulus bill spending on transportation makes only a minor dent in either amount. Despite the possibility of some additional leveraged funding via an envisioned infrastructure bank that could be rolled into the reauthorization bill, it’s increasingly clear that manna from Washington – though important – isn’t a stand-alone solution.
That’s because of deepening maintenance and construction needs resulting from four decades of robust growth in passenger and freight vehicle miles traveled, plus simultaneous under-investment in infrastructure, and continuing population growth. And so across the U.S., more and more states and regions are grappling with difficult political choices to pay for fixing eroded transportation infrastructure, and for building new capacity and instituting other strategies to ease traffic congestion as the economic recovery unfolds in the next several years.
The first step is realizing you have a problem. There’s a fair amount of that going around.
West Coast major metro regions face growing population, plus projected increases in total vehicle miles traveled and freight volume. Traffic congestion already exacts a high toll, and without serious intervention will worsen many-fold, harming economic growth and quality of life in coming decades. That means ameliorative strategies and cross-boundary collaboration between the states are more important than ever. So, top transportation advisory panels for California, Oregon and Washington will this week hold their first-ever joint meetings, in Portland and Seattle. In a Washington State Transportation Commission press release, chair Carol Moser (below, right) says:
“These joint meetings are the first ever to occur between the West Coast commissions. These types of engagements are important for building relationships and alliances between the West Coast states. They provide the opportunity for us to partner and identify our shared transportation priorities, which we…intend to continue using as leverage in influencing our collective Congressional delegations in securing federal transportation funding for the tri-state area.”
When all three commissions meet Wednesday, July 22 in Portland, one focus will be the Columbia River Crossing bridge project planned on I-5 to replace the old, dangerous and often congested twin spans connecting Clark County, Washington and Portland. The new structure will include a light rail extension, bike and pedestrian paths, and will be electronically tolled with higher rates at peak hours. The CRC project could lead to a deeper discussion of regional highway corridor tolling in metro Portland, according to some Oregon lawmakers and Portland-area planners. That approach is making inroads in metro Puget Sound, with several related state studies underway. At the Portland meeting the three commissions will also discuss the looming federal surface transportation funding re-authorization bill. The big six-year package will likely be delayed as long as 18 months from its expiration this fall, as the Obama administration and key Congressional members slog through the difficult and politically risky work of figuring out how to replace the failing federal gas tax.
For the second year running, a stopgap infusion will be required to keep solvent the federal Highway Trust Fund, which relies on the federal gas tax. A hike in the by-the-gallon tax is possible when the bill is finally re-drawn, but there is broad consensus its primacy is ending. The gas tax’s ineffectiveness has been revealed after system maintenance and expansion badly lagged during four-and-a-half decades of robust traffic growth, plus related wear-and-tear. Other more recent constraints on gas tax revenues include continually improving vehicle mileage, a trend expected to accelerate with growing production of alternative-fueled vehicles.
Many innovations are likely in the new bill, including greater funding and policy emphases on transit, biking, urban density, tolling, vehicle mileage taxes, private investment, and – the West Coast state transportation commissions hope – freight mobility.
Also on the Portland agenda: federal funding for improved inter-city and high-speed rail; and a presentation on electronic tolling projects in the state of Washington. The meeting will be preceded by an informal discussion session among commission members, also open to the public.
The Thursday, July 23 meeting in Seattle between the Washington and California commissions will highlight several surface transportation priorities the two states share.
Added roadway and transit capacity, plus more toll lanes, telecommuting and flexible work hours are among the traffic congestion solutions recommended by researchers at the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) in their 26th annual Urban Mobility Report, just released. Other recommendations include getting more efficiency out of existing surface transportation systems, and influencing development patterns to make walking, bicycling and transit more convenient. TTI, founded in 1950, is an internationally-recognized transportation research center based at Texas A & M University. The 2009 report is based on newly-analyzed 2007 data for 439 U.S. urban regions. In a summary of their findings, researchers noted that although travelers on average spent one less hour stuck in traffic in 2007 versus 2006 and wasted one Read More ›
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36th) makes some key points about the future of state and regional transportation funding in a Ballard News-Tribune op-ed.
After stressing funding shortfalls facing King County Metro’s bus service and declining gas tax revenues for road projects, Carlyle explores several important macro-level policy options for funding improved mobility.
…the long-term, big picture is important and we can’t let the battles over the tunnel, 520 bridge and other mega projects be a conversation killer about our broader structural challenges. Several ideas are on the front burner. Tolling is making a comeback, as evidenced by the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and soon on the 520 bridge. It makes sense for the people who use facilities the most to pay a greater share of the construction and maintenance costs for a specific facility or geographic area….comprehensive regional tolling – with e-tags and other solutions to help make it easy logistically – makes good economic sense so long as we have a real action plan….
Another, if controversial, idea is charging according to vehicle miles traveled (VMT), tracked by a transponder. This would take into account actual road usage, whether or not a vehicle uses gasoline, electricity or something else. It also opens up some interesting new policy ideas such as integrating car insurance, parking (no more parking meters!), tolls, etc., into one system that is able to charge drivers accordingly and accurately. Obviously, a concern about privacy is one major obstacle to this idea, so we’ll have to continue looking at innovative ways to address this very legitimate concern…..
A third option is the car-tab fee model and using the funds for direct transportation services so the money doesn’t disappear into the institutional bureaucracy of government but rather goes for real services on the ground.
Kudos to Rep. Carlyle for highlighting in a community forum the need to develop long-term surface transportation funding strategies. Regional (electronic, time-variable) tolling and further consideration of a vehicle mileage tax – along with a local-option motor vehicle excise tax applied at annual license renewal time – are all important options that our Cascadia Center and others have advocated.
More than that, Carlyle’s commentary is especially timely.
Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unveiled a blueprint for the next surface transportation authorization bill on June 18 to generally positive reviews (long version of blueprint here). However he left two key questions unanswered: Can the bill be enacted this year? and, Where will the money to fund the ambitious $500 billion program come from?
The first question has been pushed to the forefront by the Obama Administration. Last Thursday, Transportation Secretary LaHood surprised the transportation community and members of Congress with an unexpected announcement: the Administration will seek an 18-month extension of the current surface transportation authorization. An estimated $13-$17 billion will be needed to fund the program extension.
It’s common enough to hear that we need more tolling in urban regions to help fund maintenance, repair and extension of highways (not to mention the time-saving benefits of tolled express lanes). But tolling in Wyoming, a.k.a. “Big Wyoming” and “the Cowboy State,” population 493,782? What gives? Here’s what: Interstate 80 across Wyoming is wearing down, traffic is expected to more than double by 2037, and money is scarce. As the Interstate Atlas shows, I-80 is an important route to our Cascadia region, via a short spur to I-84, which then runs through Boise to Portland and I-5 just south of the border with Washington; in Sacramento, it also connects directly with I-5, the major artery defining the West Coast Read More ›
Reuters reports that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a senate committee the administration of President Barack Obama will not sign off on any hike in the increasingly ineffective federal gas tax, though Congress may propose that. LaHood’s declaration signaled that the Obama administration will take the same stance as former President George W. Bush. Revenue generated by the tax of 18.4 cents on each gallon of gas sold in the country goes into the Highway Trust Fund to fix U.S. roads and public transit. That fund has already been depleted once and Congress had to pass emergency measures last summer to replenish it. The tax has not been raised since the early 1990s… The Bush administration also opposed a Read More ›
The National Journal’s transportation blog asks what’s the proper role, if any, for public-private partnerships? Among the replies from their expert panel, two stand out. Steve Heminger, executive director of the nine-county (Bay Area) Metropolitan Transportation Commission, writes: The debate about the wisdom of greater private investment in our surface transportation system is almost always contested on theoretical or ideological grounds, and that may be enjoyable for the debaters but it is completely unenlightening for the rest of us. I suggest instead that we try to answer the following practical question: what part of our investment shortfall are PPPs most likely to address? It is probably not deferred maintenance (about 50% of our total shortfall), because there’s not much money Read More ›