Our transportation future
Exclusive commentary from Rep. Carlyle
Everything I need to know about transportation policy I learned at the corner of 15th and Market in Ballard. That’s where I waved signs at 7:30 a.m. each morning during my campaign for the legislature.
One cold, rainy day a gracious older woman waiting for her bus said to me: “Young man, don’t forget that we can’t be a great city if we don’t appreciate that we need an integrated system of cars, buses, rail, bike paths, walkable areas and everything in between. That’s what makes for real quality of life—helping families get where they need to go however it works best for them with transportation choices but without socially engineering it all.”
And then she was whisked away by a Metro bus into the mist.
Today’s reality is that Metro is facing awful cuts to service even though demand has surged in recent years; the state fuel-tax structure is an old-fashioned vestige of the 20th century, and the public needs more and better transportation choices. So how do we build that 21st century transportation infrastructure at a time when our collective financial nerves are frayed?
In a road system funded largely through fuel taxes, our revenues are dropping. Over the past few years, fuel usage has dropped as people cut back on driving and use increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles.
Although fewer miles is fantastic news from a climate-change perspective, it’s wreaking havoc on our ability to preserve and expand our wide-ranging transportation infrastructure—for cars, commercial vehicles, mass transit and more—as tax revenues slide.
On a statewide basis, because of our investments from the 2003 “Nickel” and the 2005 Transportation Partnership Program, our transportation revenue hasn’t fallen off a cliff in the short run, but the long-term prospects aren’t great: The 2009 16-year revenue projection dropped by $3 billion compared to 2008’s projection.
Moreover, the trend toward hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles is accelerating, with major announcements coming from nearly every manufacturer. I recently had the opportunity to drive a friend’s $100,000 all-electric Tesla sports car. I’ve seen the future and it’s pretty cool!
State transportation leaders like Rep. Judy Clibborn are studying the future of transportation financing methods. It’s not an easy task but 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—although I acknowledge a toll booth goes against our ‘go west young man’ rugged individualism view of the world.
Still, 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. Major European cities have embraced this model.
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. VMT tracking also doesn’t necessarily provide an incentive to drive fuel-efficient vehicles.
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.
When it comes to transit, the public’s support of the Sound Transit 2 plan last November was a generous, forward-thinking move. Looking ahead, though, we must now ask ourselves: Is the reliance on periodic public votes for sales taxes the best way to nurture a stable transit system? I don’t think so, and not just because our sales tax has hit the "tipping point" and is too high.
Now that we have a plan to build the network, it’s time to start thinking of a sustainable model for dedicated system funding.
In terms of buses, a serious issue that the county must address is the existing 20-40-40 financial model, which allocates new-service dollars according to a formula of 20 percent to Seattle, 40 percent to East King County and 40 percent to South King County.
It’s a political compromise and creates a formula that doesn’t take into account the reality of Seattle’s already-packed buses and extremely high ridership rates relative to the other King County regions.
A final issue is naturally one of governance. Should we create a mega transportation agency (and inevitably, bureaucracy)? Should we put more pressure on King County to take the politics out of running Metro? Should city hall step up and become more engaged in how Metro serves Ballard, Queen Anne and other neighborhoods? Should the state authorize more (or less?) local government taxing authority for transportation?
Tough issues, tough questions.
City, county and state elected officials—and of course candidates—every day make glorious speeches about the importance of a 21st century transportation infrastructure. I’ve made more than a few myself. But with King County’s massive debt and a declining state fuel-tax base, the future of how we fund transportation at all levels of government needs serious attention.
We need citizens to engage in this issue, to see the importance of a strategy and to hold public officials accountable for the development of an action plan.
This issue can’t be solved by the fractured levels of government—it takes real people with real insight about how they want transportation to fit into their lives in meaningful ways.
The next time you run into a candidate visiting the Ballard Farmers Market or waving signs on a street corner, I hope you’ll share your wisdom. You might be surprised how much of an impact you can have.
What are your thoughts and ideas? Join the conversation by emailing Rep. Carlyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at www.reuvencarlyle36.com.
Reuven Carlyle represents the 36th Legislative District in the Washington State House of Representatives.