Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: An ominous traffic report and what it means for Pierce County

If you drive on the region’s freeway system, you don’t need numbers to tell you what you already know.

Still, the numbers are there, and a particularly apocalyptic report from the Puget Sound Regional Council lays them bare.

Presented to the PSRC’s Growth Management Policy Board last Thursday, the bleak assessment is appropriately titled “Stuck in Traffic: 2015 Report.”

If you’re a light sleeper, turn away now. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Despite no real increase in travel — or, in more official terms, the number of vehicle miles traveled — between 2010 and 2013, delays on the region’s freeways increased significantly in both general and high occupancy vehicle lanes, the report says. Delay across the region increased by 25 percent between 2013 and 2014.

That’s just the start. While delays on Interstate 5 in Pierce County only increased by 20 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to Gary Simonson, who co-authored the traffic report for the PSRC, that’s because 2010 was a previous high point for delay around Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Of course, the situation in Pierce County is sunshine and rainbows compared to looking north. From Fife to Everett delays on I-5 increased a whopping 92 percent between 2010 and 2014.

Ouch.

The staggering Fife-to-Everett delay spike is of particular interest to the South Sound for an obvious reason: It’s a big chunk of the commute many of us make five days a week. According to Simonson, PSRC’s recent regional travel study estimates approximately 30 percent of workers in Pierce County have a job in King County.

“I think the important takeaway, for everyone really, and for the region, is that King County appears to have reached total road saturation,” says Pierce County Councilman Derek Young, who represents Pierce County on the PSRC Growth Management Policy Board.

“Even small changes, or an incident — like a fish truck disaster — creates sort of total catastrophe,” Young says, using the recent rollover of a semitrailer carrying salmon on Highway 99 as an example of a simple, unforeseen event that can cause harrowing delays. “There’s just no margin for error anymore.”

As traffic in King County slips into a gridlock hellscape, more businesses, and more people, will look to Pierce County as an alternative.

Gene Balk of The Seattle Times reported in late March that Census data shows that Pierce had 4,336 more people move into the county in 2014 than moved out of it. Presumably, many are coming from King County. That’s a significant shift, considering Pierce had a net loss of 75 people in 2013.

What it means is we better be ready, and building the transportation infrastructure of the future is a gigantic part of that. If people and business are going to choose to locate here, they’ve got to be able to get around.

Some of the business-related solutions will sound antiquated and pavement-centric, but that doesn’t mean they can be ignored — even under a banner of carbon reduction. Finishing state Route 167 is crucial for the economic livelihood of the Port of Tacoma and our region as a whole, while easing the bottleneck on I-5 at JBLM has to sit at the top of the to-do list.

But more than anything, making sure the Legislature gives Sound Transit the authority to ask voters for the full $15 billion it will take to complete the Puget Sound’s mass transit spine is essential.

And any Sound Transit plan must include a long overdue light rail expansion to Federal Way and Tacoma.

Coming Sound Transit negotiations will be tense, even if policy makers in Olympia do the prudent thing and allow the regional transit agency to seek $15 billion rather than the state Senate’s proposed $11.2 billion ask. Seattle wants light rail to Ballard. Bellevue wants to push tracks to Redmond and beyond. Everett is in line for light rail too.

Tacoma and Pierce County must stand firm. More buses, or more Sounder service, is not the same as the long-awaited light rail connection. The Sounder is hamstrung by being forced onto rail lines largely owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, while buses fall victim to gridlock on the roadways just as cars do.

“People are hungry for more transit, across the region, and down here in the South Sound,” says Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, the outgoing president of the PSRC and a Sound Transit board member.

When it comes to traffic, McCarthy says, “People feel it, they know it, they’re in it.”

Unless we want to spend more and more time reading grim reports such as the one offered up by the regional council, now is the time to build for the future.

Of course, if we do nothing, we’ll have plenty of time to read these reports… while sitting in traffic.

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