Regional Transportation Plan Pt. 2, in which I Complain a Little

By Josh Cohen March 18, 2010

It looks like I was a little too enthusiastic in my original analysis of the Puget Sound Regional Council's Transportation 2040 plan. With my experiences as a bike commuter in places like State College, Pennsylvania and Greensboro, North Carolina—where cycling infrastructure is a rarity and drivers are apt to speed by you while calling you a fag—it's hard not to get excited about proposed improvements to Seattle's network of trails, bike lanes, and sharrows.

I stand by my argument that some of the specific bike plans they've proposed are intelligent improvements, but I have to concede that those non-motorized transportation plans are overshadowed by the planned investments for cars. According to many of Seattle's prominent transportation and environmental groups the PSRC's car-centric plan doesn't live up to its stated goals of improving the region's environmental health and making significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions--two goals that are better achieved with biking, walking, and mass transit than improved highways and widened roads.

Groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club (CBC), the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, Transportation Choices, and Futurewise provided significant feedback to the PSRC during the public comment period. According to David Hiller, Cascade Bicycle Club's advocacy director, that feedback was basically all-for-naught in the end.

The original Transportation 2040 draft provided six options (which they called "alternatives") that offered varying levels of funding for mass transit and non-motorized transportation (NMT). The transportation and enviro groups threw their weight behind Alternate 5, which offered the greatest provisions for mass transit and NMT, proposed significant road tolling to help fund alternative transportation, and reduce vehicle miles traveled. Though it was the preferred alternative, many of the groups asked the PSRC to go even further to reduce environmental impact.

In their letter of public comment, the environmental advocacy group Futurewise summed up the shortcomings of the plan saying, "Alternative 5 comes closet to fully addressing these concerns, but even Alternative 5 needs to focus more transit. Alternative 5 also needs a funded program to provide bus routes, pedestrian improvements, and bicycle improvements so that we can use our expanding investments in commuter rail, light rail, and regional and local transit more efficiently."

Much to the disappointment of CBC's advocacy director David Hiller, PSRC went with a hybrid plan with fewer investments in mass transit and NMT than even Alternative Five proposed.

"The PSRC's hybrid plan didn't do enough in terms of vehicle miles traveled or climate change," said Hiller. "Instead of going further they went backwards."

Hiller also said that the heavy investment in driving are not only problematic from an environmental standpoint, they have a significant impact on the viability of biking and walking.

"When you widen the road, it increases traffic and makes it harder to ride bikes comfortably. Lots of people won't even ride on a busy road," Hiller said.

The CBC's 35-page letter to the PSRC contained eight major suggestions for improving the Transportation plan to better address public health, social equity, and environmental impact. Their main argument—one that was outlined in the Seattle Times Op-ed co-authored by CBC director Chuck Ayers—is that money invested in infrastructure for cars is not only money that could have been spent on NMT, but money invested that does nothing to address growing public health and environmental concerns.

Futurewise planning director Tim Trohimovich said his organization has three major concerns with the PSRC's final plan. 1) It doesn't do an adequate job of reducing greenhouse gases to meet the state requirements. In their public comments, Futurewise said that in order to reach Washington's goal of reducing overall greenhouse gas emission to 50% below 1990 levels by 2050, Transportation 2040 needs to look into "cleaner fuels, fleet efficiency ... transportation mode switches, and land use changes." 2) The project priorities are not well defined. 3) The final plan includes an amendment that funnels all tolling revenues towards road and highways instead of devoting some to mass transit and NMT.

The PSRC plan estimates that around $34 billion will be raised through tolling and hot lanes over the next 30 years. Under the final Transportation 2040 plan, all of that revenue will go towards roads and highways.

"I agree that some tolling money needs to be spent on highways and roads, but it also really needs to be spent on alternatives like mass transit and non mototrized transportation," said Trohimovich.

Things look pretty decent for cyclists and walkers when you just look at the tiny sliver of Transportation 2040 that is the proposed bike plans, but that is a little silly. The bigger picture shows a continued investment in cars that doesn't address pressing climate issues and ultimately has a negative effect on the viability of cycling and walking in the region.
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