Opinion

Travel times across I-90 could climb significantly

Mercer Island residents should be worried because current transportation planning could force travel times across I-90 to climb significantly higher.

Consider these three events: (1) replacing the 520 bridge, (2) tolling the 520 bridge, and (3) light rail to Bellevue.

There is no doubt that replacing the 520 span across Lake Washington is needed, but building a scaled-down bridge to reduce costs will lead to greater congestion across I-90.

With the favored six-lane option, there would be no increase in general purpose lanes on 520 compared to what is currently there. This means that traffic congestion will be just as bad on the day when the new bridge is opened and as a result, drivers on I-90 will not see any relief.

Policymakers are also considering tolling the 520 bridge to help pay for the new span. Yet, according to the Department of Transportation (WSDOT), tolling a six-lane 520 would cause 30 percent of the traffic volume to shift onto other roads.

The majority of this diverted traffic will fall onto I-90, which is already heavily congested.

Sound Transit’s plan to bring light rail to Bellevue will also worsen traffic across I-90. WSDOT estimates that congestion will rise 25 percent if Sound Transit reconfigures the reversible center HOV lanes for light rail.

The assault on drivers across I-90 is underway and it’s happening right before our eyes. One could reasonably question whether policymakers are deliberately trying to worsen traffic congestion to make public transit more attractive. Clearly, both the current 520 plan and Sound Transit’s plan to place light rail across I-90 favors transit, while making traffic congestion worse for everyone else.

This “carrot and stick” approach creates severe economic disincentives for drivers, while using their money to sweeten the use of public transit.

This type of strategy seeks to force drivers out of their cars and into public transportation. But restricting mobility in one mode for the benefit of another will always fail because it does not respect people’s freedom of movement.

Trying to force people from their cars is not the proper role of government, and voters expressed such with their firm rejection of the Roads and Transit measure (Proposition 1) in November.

The package favored transit by a margin of three to one, and experts agreed that traffic congestion would still double if it passed. Wisely, voters decided to save their money for a plan that would actually reduce traffic congestion.

But the rejection of Proposition 1 is not really surprising.

In a recent Washington Policy Center poll, nearly 70 percent of voters say traffic relief is “fairly” or “extremely” important, but the same 70 percent think the state is doing a “poor” job at fixing it.

In the same poll, nearly half of the respondents who voted against Proposition 1 said that they would have voted for it if it had reduced congestion.

These results should tell policymakers that instead of forcing unnatural behavior changes by making traffic congestion worse, transportation spending should focus on congestion relief.

Instead, policymakers are using congestion as a tool to force people out of their cars.

The state has a monopoly on our road system. As such, the state has agreed to ensure its citizens a certain level of service, or a freedom of mobility. Using congestion as a tool rather than fixing it is an attempt at social engineering that is sure to fail.

This strategy also negatively impacts the freight industry and, ultimately, consumers.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, it costs the freight industry $32 for every hour of delay. In 2004, that amounted to about $7.8 billion nationally. That means consumer prices include nearly $8 billion directly attributed to traffic congestion. Combined with rising fuel prices and the potential of added congestion, the cost to consumers will be even greater.

Mercer Island residents, business owners and consumers should be worried. In terms of economics and freedom of movement, the current path for I-90 will be costly.

Policymakers should instead focus on programs and infrastructure that reduce congestion. For example, an integrated Bus Rapid Transit system would carry just as many riders as light rail across the I-90 bridge. It would cost less and it would not rob the vehicle- carrying capacity of the center lanes. Sound Transit should also reconsider restricting the two new HOV lanes currently under construction. By opening these to all vehicles, officials could increase capacity by a third, without any additional construction.

Public officials should be using our transportation taxes to reduce congestion, not make it worse.

SARAH RINDLAUB is a board member of Washington Policy Center and former Chairman of the Board. MICHAEL ENNIS is the director of the Center for Transportation at the Washington Policy Center.

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