Seattle is the Most Congested City in America

by Michael Ennis, Director, Center for Transportation, Washington Policy Center 
March 2010

Puget Sound Business Journal published this op-ed on March 5, 2010.

Seattle Traffic

Image by Oran Viriyincy via Flickr

In a recent study released by a national company that uses travel and speed data from its GPS customers to measure traffic, Seattle ranks number one as the most congested city in America. While most of us shake our heads, Seattle officials are quietly cheering for a job well done.

For years, Seattle’s anti-car policies have stripped our freedom of mobility to levels at which we are now recognized as the most congested city in America.  City officials replace auto lanes with bus-only restrictions and artificially increase parking costs by limiting supply and raising parking taxes.  And despite low ridership, city officials did not balk when their analysis showed a new street car would actually increase traffic congestion.

Sadly, policymakers have been strangely silent on Seattle’s dubious new honor.  There have been no public forums, no press releases and no reaction from the new mayor or the new county executive.

Despite its negative economic impacts and its role in reducing our quality of life, for some, traffic congestion is a tool, not an obstacle.  And worse yet, Seattle’s anti-car philosophy seems to stretch beyond the shadow of the Space Needle.

In 2007, the Washington State Auditor’s Office found that congestion relief was not a priority in Washington State.  The analysis concluded that congestion was a “solvable problem” and could save the state $3 billion in economic impacts.

At the policy level, instead of implementing congestion relief as a goal, the state’s official position is “to improve the predictable movement of goods and people throughout Washington State.”  This means regardless of how much travel delay you face, as long as it is the same every day, the state is meeting its objective.

In largely a symbolic gesture,  State Rep. Judy Clibborn proposed a bill during the 2008 legislative session to make congestion relief a priority shortly after the SAO audit’s findings.  Yet, despite her being chair of the House Transportation Committee, the bill did not even receive a hearing and it has not been seen again.

This should concern every working mom and dad who worries about being home in time for dinner, for Boeing executives who need to move airplane parts around the region, for the commuting needs of the 30,000 regional Microsoft employees, and for the freight industry that needs to get goods to market.

Indeed, the plans for three upcoming transportation projects suggest that traffic congestion continues to be used as an instrument, rather than treated as a problem that can be fixed.

The preferred alternative to replace the 520 floating bridge does not add any new general-purpose lanes to the already-congested configuration that exists today.  While preferable to the surface option, the leading Viaduct plan actually reduces the number of existing automobile lanes from six to four, which guarantees more traffic snarls.  Sound Transit plans to do away with the reversible center lanes across I-90, which a state Department of Transportation study has shown will increase traffic congestion for the rest of us during the peak commute times.

This means the supply of highway lanes that connect the region to the largest employment hub in the state will decrease in the next twenty years, despite a projected population increase of more than 1 million new residents.

It is now estimated that traffic congestion in the Puget Sound region will double and reach the levels of present day Los Angeles by 2030.

Mobility is the key to an economic recovery and our region’s success depends upon it.  Seattle and state officials should reexamine projects that make traffic congestion worse and start working on projects that fix it.

In a recent statewide poll, two-thirds of respondents said traffic relief is important to them.  Whether it’s your kids’ soccer game, picking up dinner-to-go or delivering manufactured parts, people care immensely about reducing traffic congestion because being there is what’s important and we can do something about it.

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