by Matt Rosenberg June 19th, 2012
If traffic congestion on Washington’s interstate and state highways were to grow by a far-from-impossible 20 percent, 56 percent of freight-dependent businesses would pass the added costs on to consumers, more than a third would reroute or eat the costs, and one in ten would either shut down or relocate. The projected impact on freight-dependent businesses would result in a net one-time loss to Washington of 27,250 jobs, and a $3.3 billion decline in direct, indirect and induced economic output. All that is according to a new survey of more than 1,000 Washington freight-dependent employers, done for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) by Washington State University’s Social and Economic Sciences Research Center and WSU’s Freight Policy Transportation Institute. A central piece of how the state defines traffic congestion is that it occurs when average speeds on interstates and state highways fall below 45 miles per hour.
Whether highway congestion in Washington would actually rise by one-fifth at any point in coming years is hard to say, but as the economy recovers, the odds grow stronger. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s “Connecting Washington” task force report issued in January 2012 does forecast tripling of freight volume in the state by 2035, plus 28 percent population growth in the next decade, and 60 billion vehicle miles traveled in Washington by 2020 – up from 57.2 billion in 2010. The bulk of traffic congestion statewide occurs in Central Puget Sound and the theoretical drops in employment and economic output from a congestion spike would be greatest there as well, according to the new survey report from WSDOT and WSU. But that report emphasizes that many freight-dependent employers elsewhere in the state have a big stake in Puget Sound roadways snarls because they depend on the ports of Seattle and Tacoma for shipping of goods to their final destination.
According to the new WSDOT/WSU survey report, “Congestion causes freight-dependent businesses, such as manufacturing, retail and wholesale trade, agriculture, construction, and timber/wood products, to operate less efficienctly by increasing the amount of wasted time that trucks (and drivers) spend in traffic. Congestion increases businesses’ transportation costs, which are often passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods.”
The survey report recommends several approaches to limit the growth of highway congestion in Washington state, which are already beginning to be implemented through WSDOT’s “Moving Washington” strategy. These include more ramp meters to control the pace of vehicles entering highways, more “incident response to quickly clear collisions,” and improved traffic signal timing. The report also recommends electronically-tolled express lanes on area highways, with higher rates at peak hours; and adding road capacity in some key corridors.
Although the survey report does not mention it, Washington will also begin this year to further explore the controversial concept of a so-called “road-user charge” or pay-by-the-mile charge for motorists. That’s a number of years off at best, but the state recently sought proposals from consultants for up to $875,000 of work to perform an initial feasibility assessment.
The governor’s task force report says the state would need to spend $50 billion in coming years to really get it right on surface transportation system preservation and corridor capacity growth, including transit; but that given economic constraints, a more realistic spending target for the next decade is $21 billion. The governor’s report also stresses that with the by-the-gallon gas tax rendered relatively impotent from ever-growing vehicle mileage gains and inflation, paying for needed surface transportation improvements will likely require adopting a “direct user fee that is based on miles traveled,” in the same manner that consumers pay for utilities such as water and electricity tied to metered usage.