Cruel as the Great Recession was, it gave Puget Sound drivers a holiday from relentlessly increasing highway traffic. With fewer jobs to drive to, people they did less driving.
The holiday’s over, as a new report from the state Department of Transportation shows. Employment is almost back to pre-recession levels, and Seattle is seeing a stunning boom in tech jobs. This region’s highways are again stressed far past their capacity, underscoring the need for new investment in aging infrastructure.
The newly released 2014 Corridor Capacity Report provides a guided tour of the state’s worst chokepoints. Interstate 5 – the grand arterial of Western Washington – had become a purgatory for drivers during the downturn. That was a step up. Now it’s become hell again.
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The Department of Transportation tracks “reliable” commute times – how early a driver must be on the road to be reasonably certain of getting to work or some other place on time.
This will surprise no one, but reliable lead time on an I-5 trip from Federal Way to Seattle in the morning jumped from an agonizing 57 minutes in 2011 to an excruciating 69 minutes in 2013.
That’s for a solo motorist. Carpools reliably made the trip last year in 49 minutes, and transit did it in 38, on average.
Another non-surprise: Fife, the Tacoma Dome and the corridor through Joint Base Lewis-McChord are routinely jammed. At the Dome, the afternoon southbound misery begins at 3:35 p.m., on average, and persists until after 6 p.m. The backup extends two miles. The suffering resumes at JBLM and stretches for five miles.
Sort-of-good news: The “reliable” lead time between Tacoma to Federal Way during the morning rush hour increased by only three minutes from 2011 and 2013, from 21 to 24 minutes. That’s still a long time for a 10-mile trip.
In the afternoon and evening, it’s worse: 35 minutes from Federal Way to Tacoma as of last year. Transit makes it in an average of 18 minutes, both a.m. and p.m.
Against this dismal backdrop, the buses and commuter trains are shining successes. They get places faster, are heavily used and take many thousands of drivers off the highways. They’re a long way from being the solution, though.
This state – or at least its Legislature – tends to suffer sticker shock in the face of multi-billion-dollar transportation investment bills. Again this year, lawmakers rejected a much-needed highway-and-transit package.
Yet the status quo ought to produce at least as much sticker shock. The Corridor Capacity Report estimated the statewide cost of traffic delays at $858 million last year alone. Drivers and employers in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties bear most of that cost; 97.8 percent of all statewide traffic delay occurs in the Puget Sound region.
The proposed improvements to Interstate 5, I-405 and state Route 167 wouldn’t make all the congestion go away. But they would help, and they would also generate an immense surge of employment. Simply connecting SR 167 to I-5 – now separated by five miles – would generate tens of thousands of permanent jobs.
With highways, it’s not pay now or pay later. It’s pay now, one way or the other, and pay more later if we do nothing.