The Issaquah City Council’s decision to place improving the mobility of the city’s transportation system as it’s number one goal for 2010 would have come as good news for those hoping to see alternate transit methods reduce the increasingly troublesome problem of car congestion in the flatlands.
But, for the time being anyway, the city will continue to focus on building more roads, and road improvements, as a way to increase traffic volumes.
The first clause under the city’s number one goal is to “focus on improving existing road system effectiveness and traffic flow.”
One of the first projects to be launched in this vein will be works to improve the capacity of Newport Way between NW Mall Street and West Sunset Way.
At this stage, city staff are still deciding whether the addition of a turning lane, or the installation of roundabouts at certain intersections will be the best way to open up through-traffic along this important corridor.
And despite not attracting federal stimulus funding the project, the city still plans to complete phase 1 of the Interstate 90 under-crossing.
It is hoped a road beginning at the Post Office building on Gilman Boulevard and extending under I-90 to Southeast 56th Street and East Lake Sammamish Parkway would improve cross-town-traffic options.
The city continues to explore all grant opportunities, as well as the likelihood of partnerships with other groups, such as the one struck with the purchaser of the former Zetec property just north of I-90.
Public Works Director Bob Brock said this week that the city’s transportation options were strictly controlled by the availability of funding.
“We’ve looked across the board, bus, roads, non-motorised transit, and money is tight everywhere,” he said. “The options that we pursue are connected to what money we can bring in.”
The expansion of the 200 bus service is something the city hopes to see happen in the future.
It is hoped the 200, which currently runs as a free service around the valley between the Fred Meyer store on the parkway to the Issaquah Community Center and the Issaquah Park and Ride on Newport Way, would soon be extended to the Issaquah Highlands, or Squak Mountain.
“We don’t have the ability to do transit by ourselves,” Brock said, referring to the expense of more buses and expanded routes.
Councilmember John Rittenhouse said that improvements to the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) provided the “biggest bang for your buck.”
“We can use technology to expand capacity, and with ITS we improve flow without having to add as many lanes.”
He added that he didn’t think planners would ever get past the point of having to add at least some lanes.
Jeff Youngstrom of Getting Around Issaquah Together (GAIT) said that genuine improvements to mobility around cities would be made by changing the behavior of residents, not by building bigger roads.
“I can see why the council has put mobility and transportation at the top of their list, and that’s because they hear about traffic a lot from their constituents, so they have to say they’re doing something about it,” he said. “But it’s a hard problem for them, because what we have is a constrained environment — we can’t just build our way out of it.”
A regular attendee at Council Transportation Committee meetings in recent times, Youngstrom said it was clear that there wouldn’t be a lot of traffic improvement construction going ahead, as there just wasn’t the money for it.
“The real fix that I see is changing behavior,” he said. “Traffic is not like flooding — a force of nature that you can’t redirect. It is about thousands of people making a conscious decision to all get in their cars and drive to the same place at the same time. You have to be able to change those minds, which is hard.”
Youngstrom said a new way of thinking was required.
“The council needs to say to the drivers, ‘you’re the one who has the power to change traffic, we don’t.’ But for them maybe it is a leadership issue. There are lots of opportunities for creative thinking.”
While he was disappointed at a lack of leadership from the council on mobility education, Youngstrom praised the city for regularly including lanes for bikes and pedestrians in pavement improvement works, and said that the Complete Streets program was helping to fill in the gaps of riding and walking corridors throughout the city.
He said that the solutions to traffic were the solutions that would also alleviate the problem of parking.
“As a driver, you need to think about whether you can do things like combine trips, or perhaps drive to one venue and then walk to the next,” he said. “What we have is a problem with everyone wanting to park within eyesight of the front door. In Issaquah, if you are willing to walk a few blocks, then there is no shortage of parking.”
Chair of the transportation committee Joshua Schaer said although he had confidence in the city’s work to relieve congestion in the short term, Youngstrom was “absolutely right.”
“At some point you can’t continue with building roads and widening roads to improve flow management,” he said. “At some point you come across a saturation point, and people have to change their habits.”
The question now for the city council is how close to that saturation point we are.