Secretary Peterson to drivers: Get ready to live with endless traffic jams

June 23, 2014

State officials tell the public that the gas taxes and other driver fees they collect are user fees, deposited into a special trust fund to maintain and expand the state’s road network to provide a quicker trip. It’s a promise to use taxpayer money and make things better. Yet, traffic congestion levels continue to rise.  In an October 2013 poll, 63% of respondents said they were unimpressed with public officials’ performance on relieving traffic congestion.  People’s frustration is understandable. The respected Texas Transportation Institute reports that traffic congestion costs the Seattle region $2.2 billion per year in lost time and excess fuel.

Some experts predict traffic congestion in the Puget Sound region will double and reach the levels of present day Los Angeles by 2030. As a result, both taxpayers and businesses may relocate elsewhere, further increasing congestion’s negative impact on the economy.

The good news is traffic congestion can be significantly reduced or eliminated. Lawmakers could remove policies that artificially increase costs and end the diversion of transportation tax dollars. State officials could officially tie spending to performance, as they did prior to 2007. Leaders could tap the private sector to deliver projects on time and avoid taxpayer-funded cost overruns. By deploying resources based on market demand and focusing on freight and personal mobility, officials could renew the public’s faith in the transportation trust fund.

Top state officials, however, appear to have given up on eliminating traffic congestion. State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson recently said: “The solution to congestion is really understanding that you’ll never get rid of it.”

Secretary Peterson’s message is clear: congestion is a problem but there is nothing we can do about it. Yet a 2007 performance audit conducted by the State Auditor’s Office determined that traffic congestion in the Puget Sound region “is a solvable problem.”

Instead of fixing traffic congestion, however, public officials are spending billions of tax dollars on expensive, less popular alternatives, like light rail.

After years of delay and tens of billions of dollars, Sound Transit rail will carry only 1% daily trips in the region, with no appreciable reduction in traffic congestion. Worse, Governor Jay Inslee has ordered transportation managers to submit a plan that divert taxes and fees paid by drivers to non-highway projects, thus causing travel times for the general public to rise.

To reduce congestion, lawmakers could start by lowering the cost of building roads. Official state policies to artificially increase project costs and divert money to other purposes take away money from building projects that would greater benefit the public. As a result, many projects promised with past gas tax increases have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. The practices of the state charging itself sales tax or imposing costly prevailing wage rules may gain political points, but do little to reduce trip times or increase safety for the traveling public.

In the 2015 legislative session state lawmakers will debate a hefty increase in the gas tax and other fees supposedly to pay for transportation projects. Reforms to prioritize congestion relief and reduce costs would ensure that tax dollars are spent effectively to improve traffic flows. Traffic congestion is solvable, but if the Secretary thinks accepting endless traffic jams is the only response, lawmakers will have a hard time convincing the public to pay more for policies that don’t make things any better.