The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Handling the Planned Closure of I-5

Last updated August 17, 2007 11:24 p.m. PT

Sounder train
Meryl Schenker / P-I
Although it was standing room only, the mood was good, as Cynthia Softli of Kent, with the Department of Corrections, rides Sounder for the first time.

Commuters showed they can adapt, at least briefly

A thousand little things done differently made all the difference


Like so many others, Patrick Hirayama took the bus Monday, heeding warnings that a few lane closures on Interstate 5 could cause a traffic Armageddon.

They didn't. He got back in his car the next day.

"My wife wanted the dog dropped off at day care ... and he doesn't fit on my 10-speed," said the computer administrator, who switched among a car, the bus and a bike for the rest for the week.

A thousand little things people did differently -- took vacations, drove with a neighbor, left earlier, caught the bus to a Mariners game -- made the I-5 lane closures largely painless, at least in the earlier part of the week.

It's an interesting lesson for a region that tends to fixate on pouring concrete -- building light rail or a tunnel or freeway lanes -- rather than changing behavior to solve traffic problems.

"The dialogue about transportation here has been very polarized, and it has really been about big megaprojects," said Jessyn Farrell, executive director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, which promotes alternatives to cars. "It's a lot of little solutions that make a big, complicated system work."

Those who favor replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with surface street fixes and transit argue that people could adjust to that as well, despite similar predictions that gridlock would ensue.

"I think they're almost intentionally made to support an antiquated 1950s view of transportation -- that somehow freeways are the solution to our traffic woes, and when they're out of service everything breaks down," said Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck.

Public transit ridership in some cases hit record highs Monday, evidence that Seattle's drive-alone diehards may be more flexible than anybody gives them credit for.

But forecasting exactly how people will react to freeway closures is no science. If no one changed routine this week, there would have been crippling backups, said Morgan Balogh, a traffic engineer with the state Department of Transportation.

"We have to let people know the seriousness of the work we're doing," he said. "Then they're very adaptable, and they don't want to sit in traffic more than anybody else. There's lots of different ways to get from one place to another."

But Balogh and others agree that there's a big difference between what people are willing to do for two weeks and for the rest of their lives.

All this week proves is that people usually do whatever is in their best interest, said Chris Vance, former chairman of the state Republican Party.

Indeed, people seduced by pictures of nearly empty freeways increasingly returned to their cars as the week wore on, which, predictably, caused long backups Friday.

If people have a better alternative to driving on a given day, they'll use it, Vance said. But that doesn't mean the region should continue to neglect critical road infrastructure.

"It worries me because the rail zealots will say, 'Great, let's make it so impossible to drive that we'll force everybody to take transit,' " he said. "But you can't put a truck on the train, and trucks are a critical component of our economy. You have to be able to move goods and products throughout the region."

This week's freeway lane closures did offer a window of opportunity by nearly forcing commuters out of their comfort zones, experts say. Most people don't use public transit simply because they're unfamiliar with it, but a big disruption can persuade them to experiment.

It was no small test for agencies such as King County Metro and Sound Transit, which had to accommodate an influx of people with few new resources, said Mark Hallenbeck, chairman of the Transportation Research Center at the University of Washington.

"If they have a good experience on the bus, you might generate a bus rider for life," he said. "If it's late or they're scared at the bus stop at Third and Pine because there's a shooting that day, you've just reinforced that fear of the unknown."

Sound Transit, for instance, ramped up service by securing more than 1,000 additional parking spots and adding a fifth train between Puyallup and Seattle. But that still wasn't enough on Monday, when some commuters couldn't find spots and were packed onto trains.

Elliott Bay Water Taxi

ZoomMeryl Schenker / P-I

Teresa Smith, left, and Amy Wilson, putting on makeup, ride the Elliott Bay Water Taxi to Seattle. Wilson is a regular water taxi commuter. The fare is $3 each way, unless you have a bus pass (as Wilson does), in which case the fare is free.

"I think it was an unfortunate introduction," said Raymond Gach, a systems manager who takes the Sounder Train from Auburn to Seattle every day. "Normally, it's very relaxing and you can have a cup of coffee."

Sound Transit spokeswoman Linda Robson said that even Friday, when ridership is typically lighter, the northbound morning trains were carrying far more people than usual.

Rail choices will expand this fall, she said, when Sounder plans to introduce two more trains between Seattle and Tacoma, including one that serves a reverse commute. One additional train will go to Everett, she said.

People want more transportation options that fit the contours of their daily lives, whether they're commuting or taking kids to the zoo, said Farrell, of the Transportation Choices Coalition.

Ballot measures in November that would fund $47 billion in highway improvements and extending Sound Transit's light rail would go a long way toward fulfilling the region's wish list of megaprojects.

The planning committee for the roads package lists its cost at $7 billion. But the total rises to $16 billion when estimates for construction, inflation, interest and other debt payment costs incurred over 30 years are factored in.

Likewise, Sound Transit states the cost for the projects associated with the fall ballot as $10.8 billion, but the total cost is nearly three times that when building and operating the expanded light rail system are coupled with the financing costs over 50 years.

It remains to be seen whether a tenuous truce between some roads and rails proponents will fracture, or whether voters will raise taxes for it. Both measures must pass for either to succeed.

The Metro bus expansion approved by voters last year will help with some problems, such as lack of frequency and spotty mid-day service on certain routes.

But experts say it's also important to study the fine grain of how people commute, shop, play, pray and recreate around the region, in order to offer smaller, more surgical solutions.

Those could include making it easier for people to find spontaneous ride-shares online, tailoring employer contributions or introducing people to neighbors who work in other small businesses on the same block.

"We know this is temporary," Farrell said of the I-5 closures. "We need to make really serious investments in transit to make it work permanently, not just for commuters but for families."


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