– Seattle must build a 21st-century transportation network

GUEST COMMENTARY

Seattle Times

Seattle’s traffic problems will only get worse, writes guest columnist Greg Dietzel. Though the tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct is emerging as a city campaign issue, Seattle must “begin using our entire transportation system — roads, bridges, tunnels and transit — more intelligently.”

When it comes to Seattle’s traffic problems, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is our city no longer has the second-worst traffic congestion in the country. The bad news? We’re still in the top five.

In June, the Texas Transportation Institute released its annual Urban Mobility Report, which includes new rankings of traffic congestion in 75 metropolitan areas. Seattle tied with Miami and Boston for fifth place.

So, while improvements are being made, it seems we still have a ways to go. After all, how much difference is there between second place and fifth? Well, not much. After Los Angeles, a clear No. 1 in the rankings, the rest of the top 10 cities are crammed together like the cars on Interstate 5 at rush hour.

According to another study, Seattle can expect traffic delays significantly worse than what Los Angeles drivers deal with today by 2030 unless major steps are taken to relieve congestion.

Clearly, that is not a scenario anyone wants to see become reality. Traffic congestion is not only time-consuming and stress-inducing; it impedes economic growth and job creation while increasing air pollution and consuming natural resources. In short, it lowers our quality of life.

Fortunately, state and local policymakers have acknowledged the problem and are taking steps to address it. The Lake Washington Urban Partnership Agreement with the federal government to help underwrite the replacement of the SR 520 Bridge is a good, sensible move.

The agreed-upon plan by city, county and state leaders to replace the antiquated Alaskan Way Viaduct with a waterfront tunnel also makes sense The 50-year-old viaduct, damaged in a 2001 earthquake and in danger of collapse, is scheduled to be torn down in 2012. But while the viaduct will be gone, the thousands of cars that travel on it every day will remain, and they have to go somewhere.

Although city and state officials have agreed upon and funded a deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the issue of whether to build such a tunnel has again become a city election issue. An anti-tunnel platform is being advanced by candidates in both the mayor’s race and a city council race.

In lieu of a tunnel to replace the viaduct, that traffic would simply flow back onto surface streets, causing increased congestion and emissions in and around the city — exactly what we’re trying to avoid. That’s why the city needs to move ahead with its plans to build the tunnel. Failing to do so would be a major step backward.

That being said, building a new tunnel or bridge, while necessary, is not sufficient to solve all of our traffic problems. Repairing and maintaining our transportation infrastructure is important, but if we really want to maximize our investments then we need to begin using our entire transportation system — roads, bridges, tunnels and transit — more intelligently.

An intelligent transportation system would enhance planned infrastructure investments like the tunnel and the 520 bridge with innovative technology to relieve traffic congestion, such as predictive capabilities that enable authorities to notify drivers in advance of likely traffic jams and can even suggest alternate routes customized for individual drivers.

These types of systems are already being used around the world with great success. Officials in Singapore, for example, receive real-time data through sensors embedded in roadways. Using sophisticated software to analyze that data, they are able to predict traffic flows with up to 85 percent accuracy.

In Stockholm, a dynamic toll system based on the flow of vehicles in and out of the city has reduced traffic by 20 percent, decreased wait time by 25 percent and cut emissions by more than 10 percent. It has also increased public-transportation usage by 40,000 riders per day.

Meanwhile, city planners in Kyoto simulate large-scale traffic situations involving millions of vehicles to analyze urban impact. The system can optimize traffic lights to reduce jams and predict the effect a new shopping mall or traffic regulation will have on a community’s traffic.

These are the types of approaches Seattle needs to embrace if we want to reduce traffic congestion. Doing so would not only lower our collective stress level by cutting down on commute times, but reduce carbon emissions and helps spur economic growth and job creation.

But we also need to think beyond our roadways. President Obama’s $8 billion plan for high-speed rail presents an exciting opportunity to revolutionize transportation in America. High-speed rail, defined as trains traveling faster than 100 mph, provides an excellent alternative to road and air travel. Rail is two to five times more energy efficient than road or air transportation. And passenger travel by rail produces three to 10 times less carbon dioxide than cars or airplanes.

The Pacific Northwest section of the plan proposes a corridor linking Seattle north to Vancouver and south to Tacoma, Portland and Eugene. Such a line would not only do wonders for commute times on I-5, but would spur economic development along the corridor, helping create jobs in the process. It would also be an excellent complement to Sound Transit’s newly launched Central Link light-rail system.

Of course, states are going to have to compete for the $8 billion in rail funding, so it is important that we mount an aggressive and sustained campaign if we are serious about bringing high-speed rail to the area.

There is no single, simple solution to Seattle’s traffic woes. But there is one thing we know for sure: While building and repairing infrastructure is necessary, that alone will not fix the problem. We need a smarter approach, and that requires fundamentally changing the way we think about this issue.

With innovative thinking and commitment from government, business and individual citizens, we can develop a 21st-century transportation network worthy of the Emerald City.

Greg Dietzel is IBM’s senior state executive for Washington and serves on the board of trustees for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce

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