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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Charles Prestrud: WSDOT’s new highway plan embraces traffic congestion

Charles Prestrud

By Charles Prestrud

Once upon a time, the State Highway System Plan was the most important document the Washington state Department of Transportation produced. State law requires a highway plan that “… recommends specific and financially feasible improvements to preserve the structural integrity of the state highway system, ensure acceptable operating conditions, and provide for enhanced access to scenic, recreational and cultural resources.”

After neglecting this requirement for the past 16 years, WSDOT has finally produced a new Highway System Plan, but unlike previous editions, the new draft contains no list of projects, no detailed cost estimates, and no timeline for implementation. Given those serious omissions, it’s a stretch to see how the plan complies with state law.

In the past, the plan included a detailed list of all the highway projects WSDOT planned for the next 20 years along with cost estimates for each project and timelines for implementation. The plan was important because it served as the starting point for development of the Legislature’s transportation budget, as well as informing the plans of cities, counties and regional planning agencies. The plan was typically updated about every four years to reflect projects that had been completed, changes in funding, and to “identify current and future capacity, operational and safety deficiencies.”

The lack of project information also means the plan won’t be terribly useful for the Legislature as it writes a supplemental transportation budget in the coming session. The plan concedes the program-level estimates it does provide “… are for long-range planning and not appropriate for budgeting.” When the Legislature convenes in January, it looks like it will need to do its own planning and cost estimating.

So, if the new plan doesn’t list the projects needed to address deficiencies, and it doesn’t provide cost estimates that can be used for budgeting, what is it for? It seems that rather than describing the specific improvements needed to meet the state’s transportation goals, the new plan proposes changing the goals, or maybe it’s more a case of moving the goal posts.

In transportation planning, the standard method of measuring congestion is Level-of-Service. This measures vehicular traffic volumes relative to available roadway capacity, usually represented on a scale where “A” is free-flowing traffic and “F” is stop and go. Under existing state law, a “D” is deemed acceptable in urban areas and “C” in rural areas (I don’t think motorists would say this sets the bar too high). WSDOT leaders, however, do not like this method because it has led to proposals for expanded highway capacity. It is no surprise that WSDOT now proposes abandoning this metric and coming up with something that emphasizes transit, cycling and walking. The obvious downside is that without expanding highway capacity, traffic congestion will get worse, and even the “D” threshold will not be achieved.

To justify a plan with worse congestion the plan says, “When coupled with quality transit, active transportation facilities, and transit-supportive land use, vehicle LOS E/F can incentivize people to shift away from single-occupancy vehicles.” In other words, we should welcome congestion in the hope it will finally get people out of their cars.

It would be wonderful if more transit and bicycling accommodated the expected growth in travel demand, but Census data shows that transit in Washington accounted for only 3.2% of commute trips and cycling less than 1%. There is no plausible scenario in which those modes handle more than a tiny fraction of the increased demand on our state’s highways. A realistic highway system plan would acknowledge that and plan accordingly.

The plan mentions the difficult trade-offs inherent in transportation planning but seems oblivious to the negative effects of traffic congestion – not just the higher costs, lost time and opportunities it imposes on businesses and commuters, but also the environmental impacts from cars idling in gridlock. In contrast, the supposed benefits of congestion are dependent on a large shift from driving to other modes, which is the opposite of what has been observed over the past decade despite supportive policies and transit expenditures that now exceed $4.5 billion per year in Washington state.

Washington does need an updated Highway System Plan, but wishful thinking and lower performance standards aren’t the solution. The plan needs to describe the specific improvements needed to increase highway system efficiency and accommodate the state’s growing population.

Charles Prestrud, of Seattle, is director of the Washington Policy Center’s Coles Center for Transportation, Prestrud has more than 30 years of transportation experience, including serving as WSDOT’s planning manager for King and Snohomish counties. Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and sit on the organization’s board.