Collaboration in Civic Spheres

WA Court Denies Transpo Greens – But Inroads Unfolding

by July 25th, 2013

A Washington state appeals court in a ruling this week affirmed a King County judge’s 2011 dismissal of a suit by prominent environmental groups against the Puget Sound Regional Council transportation planning organization asserting it failed under state law to require adequate greenhouse gas reduction measures in its “Transportation 2040” plan approved in May, 2010. The plan – covered here shortly after its release by our Public Data Ferret accountability reporting project and then in a Ferret KOMO-AM 1000 radio segment – said to address a more-than-one-third hike in population and a 51 percent boost in regional jobs by 2040 – that $189 billion more would be needed to get Seattle-region roads and transit fairly close to right by then. That would include $64 billion in new monies not yet secured, about half in taxes and fees, and half tolls.

Forty-two percent of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 came from transportation versus 26 percent nationally, according to the state’s inventory published last December. “T2040” prescribed regional electronic tolling with higher charges at peak hours, and proposed some improvements to transit , biking and pedestrian infrastructure. It’s just a wish list from an advisory body with little real decision-making power but some important local and regional elected officials on its board. Political considerations still being calculated by state legislators are central. But tectonic shifts are underway in regional transportation policy, which may in the long run boost the green priorities sought by plaintiffs in the again-failed legal action.

Sands May Be Shifting
Though Greens may have lost another round in court in challenging T2040, the sands may be shifting in their direction, nonetheless. King County suburban city councils in Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island and neighboring towns – including Republican members and mayors – now say they want the PSRC to look hard at whether toll revenues should help pay for transit, something that sets hard-core fiscal conservatives and the region’s public transit critics on edge. Simultaneously but far from public view, the state is studying a highly controversial “vehicle mileage tax” which if ever adopted could dis-incentivize peak-hour solo driving in metro Puget Sound while boosting telecommuting, ride-sharing, transit use, biking and walking.

The only thing certain is wrenching change, because of continuing peak-hour congestion, delayed maintenance, suboptimal transit and biking infrastructure, major growth in population and jobs in coming decades – and a failing gas tax funding model, undercut by huge gains in per-gallon fuel efficiency for drivers and finally in recent years by a leveling off of previously sharp growth in vehicle miles travelled per capita in the state.

Losing Court Argument on T2040 So Far From Cascade, et al
The plaintiffs in the court case were the Washington environmental non-profits Cascade Bicycle Club and Futurewise, joined by the nationally prominent green advocates The Sierra Club. Represented by veteran Seattle environmental attorney Rick Aramburu and others, they argued PSRC’s 2040 plan needed to result in actions which would actually move the region of King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties toward state-mandated greenhouse gas reduction goals in RCW 70.235.020 – section (1)(a). The goals are to achieve 1990 levels by 2020, 25 percent less than 1990 by 2035 and 50 percent less by 2050. The plaintiffs also argued that the Transportation 2040 shouldn’t pass muster under Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act, or SEPA, because it didn’t adequately consider alternative plans to meet the state greenhouse emission cutting goals.

Court: Desired Regional Transpo Greenhouse “Standards…Do Not Exist”
But in affirming a July 2011 dismissal of the case by King County Superior Court Judge Carol Schapira, the state’s Division 1 appeals panel of judges Ann Schindler, Robert Leach and Mary Kay Becker in their opinion issued this Monday July 22 holds that the state greenhouse gas reduction law “does not require proportional emissions reductions” in the transportation plan for the state’s biggest metropolitan region. The judges further note that “at this time, the legislature has not enacted region- or sector-specific measures or standards” on greenhouse gas reduction, just statewide guidance. “We cannot hold PSRC to standards which do not exist,” they add.

The ruling also states that the PSRC’s 2040 plan does adequately examine alternatives to the recommended alternative.

Cascade Bicycle Club Reaction: Region Still Needs More Green Alternatives
In a press release issued after the appeals court ruling the Cascade Bicycle Club’s Director of Policy, Planning and Government Affairs Evan Manvel said the organization wants Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to “lead a new, responsible approach to cutting climate pollution” working with the state’s departments of ecology and transportation to focus less on new highway capacity and more on “fixing our existing roads and bridges, increasing transit access, and creating more opportunities for safe biking and walking.”

Lawmakers Fiddling Around
The state legislature failed to approve in its January-to-June 2013 session a major transportation funding package including new revenue options for transit agencies facing major service cuts. And by withholding hundreds of millions in expected funding for the Washington contribution to the planned Columbia Crossing bi-state bridge replacement on I-5 between Clark County, Wash. and metro Portland, Ore., state senators effectively sent planners back to the drawing board with a sharp reminder that two key green aspects of the project – electronic tolling and light rail – aren’t an easy sell outside of progressive urban circles.

Meanwhile, business and shipping interests continue to push for added highway capacity through pending but underfunded Seattle-region projects in the SR 167 and SR 509 corridors near the Port of Tacoma and Sea-Tac Airport, respectively.

Mode Share Dysphoria: What To Do?
The PSRC’s Transportation 2040 plan in its forecasts for actual usage of transit, biking and walking on a daily basis was not encouraging to environmentalists. As we reported last October in an update on Sound Transit ridership:

According to Exhibit 4-26 in the 2010 Final Environmental Impact Statement of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s “Transportation 2040″ plan, in 2006 transit in the four-county metro region accounted for 10.4 percent of work trips, walking and biking for 5.5 percent, carpooling for 8.9 percent and single-occupant vehicles for 75.3 percent. For non-work trips, which Exhibit 4-27 shows were five times more frequent in 2006, transit and biking/walking had respective mode shares of 1.4 percent and 11.4 percent, versus 49.9 percent for carpooling and 37.2 percent for single-occupant vehicles. As a proportion of all trips, transit is expected to grow from 2.9 percent in 2006 to as much as 5.3 percent by 2040, according to Exhibit 4-26…

PSRC’s T2040 plan is now undergoing an update.

Three-and-a-half of Every 100 Weekday Seattle Trips Are on Bikes
Currently, 3.5 percent of weekday trips to work in Seattle are made on bike, second only to Portland among U.S. cities, according to a draft update of the city’s bicycle master plan. However visiting experts and more than a few locals have observed that Seatle’s current emphasis on unprotected “sharrows” or bike lanes painted into busy roadways, is problematic because they’re unsafe, and greater physical barriers between cars and bikes are needed to boost biking “mode share.”

Hot Button: Tolls to Help Pay For Transit?
One sign of possible regional movement toward improved funding and use of transit is the agreement of the PSRC to a request from Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island and five other Eastside cities plus Seattle and King County to do a study of regional system-based tolling including a look at using tolling revenues to fund transit. Such a policy would stir controversy with fiscal hawks but the apparent backing for the concept from Eastside city councils – which though they are officially non-partisan, include well-known Republicans – is significant.

PSRC has officially replied to the request by saying it intends to do a regional tolling study including how to better support transit and other alternative modes. That study would be coordinated with an unfolding Environmental Impact Statement by the Washington State Department of Transportation on its proposal for electronic tolling on part or all of I-90 between I-5 and I-405.

For Now – Tolling, Tolling, Tolling – and Funding Problems
Currently the proposed I-90 tolling – which has sparked an uprising by Mercer Island residents and workers who must use the highway to come and go – would help cover an unfunded $1.4 billion Seattle section of the parallel SR 520 corridor to the north, where an old storm- and earthquake-prone bridge across Lake Washington must be replaced, according to the state. The SR 520 bridge itself and a long stretch of SR 167 are already tolled electronically, as is the Tacoma Narows Bridge. So too will be I-405 running north-south on the Eastside and the under-construction deep-bored tunnel on SR 99 to replace the old Alaskan Way Viaduct on the downtown Seattle waterfront. But state advisory committee members and city councils have said it makes little sense to administer electronic tolls piecemeal as the state has done so far, and that a real regional plan is crucial.

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2 Responses to “WA Court Denies Transpo Greens – But Inroads Unfolding”

  1. John Niles says:

    Fine reporting!

    Note that that the reason 42% of Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 came from transportation versus 26% nationally is not because Washingtonians are motorheads, but that the State’s electric power is mostly from no-GHG hydro power dams rather than coal and natural gas.

    Fortunately, in Washington State, and the West Coast generally, the early days of sales of plug-in electric vehicles are showing an uptake similar to or better than the early days of hybrid vehicle sales a decade ago … and growing. Plug-in electric cars take advantage of the clean, green electric power in the Pacific NW, and will knock down the region’s contribution of GHG into the global atmosphere. This lower level from our corner of America doesn’t help the world climate numbers much all by itself, but it sets an example of what some of us believe needs to happen as the world moves toward two billion cars… get them off oil, ASAP.

    And as you point out, the transition of cars toward a lower use of petroleum means a transition toward additional revenue sources beyond the gasoline tax is needed, though raising the gas tax in the short term to encourage automobile electrification and infrastructure maintenance would be a double-headed win.

  2. […] by too many solo drivers. However some suburban cities plus Seattle and King County are urging a more regional and coordinated approach than the bit-by-bit state […]