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.