Complex transit picture makes the future unclear for Eastside cities

With the price of gas on the rise again, commuter routes regularly packed with traffic, and the state government currently weighing up budget cuts to roads maintenance and public transport systems, just how people will get around the Eastside of the future is now on the drawing board.

With the price of gas on the rise again, commuter routes regularly packed with traffic, and the state government currently weighing up budget cuts to roads maintenance and public transport systems, just how people will get around the Eastside of the future is now on the drawing board.

The issue of transportation in western Washington is one that has divided citizens, due in part to the large amount of tax revenue needed to complete substantial projects.

But few disagree that something needs to be done, particularly Eastside residents regularly caught in the notoriously bad morning and afternoon commutes into the Seattle area and the cities of Redmond and Bellevue.

City staff from Issaquah and Sammamish, as well as concerned area residents, are involved in a number of committees and groups charged with studying transportation options and advising government on the most effective way forward.

The Eastside Transportation Association (ETA), the WA State Transportation Committee, the Puget Sound Regional Council’s (PSRC) Transportation Policy Board, and the King County Regional Transit Committee are just some of the groups considering a range of regional options, such as new tolling revenues, increasing highway capacity, more transit, bike and pedestrian facilities, and installing new road information technology.

But according to some close to the process, the efforts to improve transportation are fragmented and counter-productive, with too many different groups and individual projects.

Douglas MacDonald was the Washington Secretary of Transportation from 2001 – 2007.

He wrote recently that citizens and voters were desperate for a new regional approach, but local and state politicians were failing to provide that.

“Politicians and activists seem only prepared to tinker with the system in pieces, not attack the picture as a whole,” he wrote for Seattle-based news web site Crosscut.com.

Former Mayor of Issaquah Rowan Hinds is one concerned resident who is hoping to influence the transportation picture of the future through involvement in transit discussions.

He is a member of the ETA, a private sector group which aims to add its voice to political decision making on transportation.

But, like MacDonald, he sees fundamental flaws in philosophy that are sabotaging transportation planning at the outset.

In an open letter to Transportation Planning Program Manager for the PSRC, Mike Cummings, Hinds said that the local population was not accepting of the densities needed for mass transit systems to be efficient.

“Our region wants us to become more European in our use of transportation modes, even though our circumstances could not be more different,” he wrote. “Our population density is less than half of the European density, and our distances, outside of Puget Sound, are more than the Europeans, yet we want to blindly follow their system with no thought about what we need to do differently.”

Hinds said that the population density of Seattle did not support the efficient running of a mass transit system, and that, statistically speaking, a more comprehensive bus system would also be a better match for the population densities of Eastside cities.

City of Sammamish Councilor Kathy Huckabay is the Vice Chair of the King County Regional Transit Committee, which makes recommendations to the King County Council on transportation issues.

She told The Reporter recently that she was fearful that cities outside of Seattle were being under-represeted by King County Metro bus services, and that commuters in Sammamish in particular could really benefit from better bus routes to Redmond and Bellevue.

City of Issaquah Councilor Fred Butler is on that committee also.

This complex and overlapping array of advisory groups are contributing to the two main transportation planning documents in the state.

PSRC’s “Transportation 2040,” of which Mayor of Sammamish Don Gerend is working group chair, has selected five transportation alternatives for the Puget Sound region.

These alternatives range from making the most of the existing system and investing in more roads and road capacity, to, at the other end of the scale, providing for a shift away from car travel in favor of public transit.

It is expected that a hybrid plan of the five distinct options will be selected, when the PSRC approves its final plan sometime this year.

The ETA has released their own “Better Transit Plan,” which they say more effectively serves the developing needs of the Eastside by concentrating transit services along a north-south axis, rather that the east-west direction of Seattle-centric systems.

Their plan envisions regional express bus routes operating along the Interstate 405 corridor, with a particular focus on commuters along the corridor between Interstate 90 and State Route 405.

It is a direct response to “Sound Transit 2”, the light-rail based plan to connect Seattle with areas to the north and south, and Bellevue.

Sound Transit was created in early 1990s by the Washington State Legislature to plan and operate a transit system for King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

The ETA claim, and there are many who agree with them, that regional transit planning must acknowledge the residential and commercial growth on the Eastside.

Sound Transit claims that the ETA-favored option of regional express buses would further overload traffic on major arterials.

Their $1.9 billion Seattle/Capitol Hill/University of Washington light rail extension recently received $813 million in federal stimulus package funds, and is expected to open in 2016.

For more on Transportation 2040, click here.

Click here for information on the ETA.