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In Seattle, Roads and Climate Get Hitched

By Eric de Place

In the Seattle metro region, voters just sank an $18 billion transportation mega-proposal that would have built more than 180 lanes miles of highway and 50 miles of light rail. But so far, the mainstream press has missed one of the most important stories of the year. The real story isn’t tax fatigue, it’s this: perhaps for the first time ever in the U.S., a critical bloc of voters linked transportation choices to climate protection.

In the run-up to the vote a surprising amount of the debate centered on the package’s climate implications. (The state has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and many cities, including Seattle, have been national leaders on climate.)

The opposition argued global warming. So did the measure’s supporters. If you don’t believe me, see, among others, the Seattle P-I (yes), The Stranger (no), the Yes Campaign, the Sierra Club's No Campaign, the right-leaning Washington Policy Center (no), and even the anti-tax/rail No Campaign, which kept trumpeting the Sierra Club's opposition as a primary reason to vote no.

The turning point may have been when King County Executive Ron Sims suddenly withdrew his support. He cited the climate-warming emissions from added traffic as one of his chief objections—he was thinking about his granddaughters, he said, not just the next five years.

The funny thing was, there was a heap of confusion and disagreement over the proposal's true climate impacts, mainly because no one had conducted a full climate assessment of the measure. But climate clearly weighed as a factor for a critical bloc of voters on both sides of the issue. In fact, Prop 1 may be the last of its kind, at least in the Pacific Northwest: a transportation proposal that lacked a climate accounting.

Obviously, there were more factors in play than just the climate. Taxes and traffic congestion mattered too. But what ultimately may have tipped that scales is that Puget Sound voters are reluctant to expand roads because they lock us into decades of increased climate pollution.

It’s pretty well accepted that Seattle-area voters are receptive to environmental messages – and in this case there were smart and well-informed greens on both sides of the debate. But green or not, the biggest problem for a certain segment of voters may have been that there was no comprehensive accounting of the climate impacts of the project -- one that included the roads, the rail, and the probable effects on land-use.

So what’s the lesson?

First, driving is the single largest source of Washington’s emissions, as it is for much of the United States. So, future transportation packages should at least attempt to tally the climate impacts. And as voters begin to take climate protection more and more seriously, transportation packages should address climate change as a guiding principle.

Transportation projects that embrace climate protection will:

Stay ahead of the curve by estimating the climate impacts in advance.

Emissions estimates should be calculated for every large transportation project. Greenhouse gas accounting is still a new field, so analysts may at first be able to obtain only ballpark figures for the expected emissions from some new projects. But reasonable estimates are still useful. And many aspects of climate accounting are fairly straightforward: we already forecast how many cars a new highway will carry, so why not estimate how much gas those cars will burn?

Sightline (where I work) developed a general estimate showing that in congested urban areas a single new lane mile of road adds at least 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases over 50 years. Detailed analyses of direct impacts, especially tailored for local areas, can help planners and voters determine the most responsible solutions for the region.

Focus on transportation solutions that are both cost-effective and climate-friendly.

Smart, small-caliber solutions can improve mobility even as they curb fossil fuel use, and at modest cost to taxpayers. Solutions like boosting ridesharing, speeding bus service, and expanding bicycle facilities, as well as using existing roadways more efficiently through policies like congestion pricing, are cost-effective solutions that can address the region’s transportation challenges while reducing climate impacts.

Consider transportation projects an opportunity to improve land use patterns.

Our transportation choices and land use patterns are closely intertwined. Adding new highways can induce low-density sprawl, which in turn lengthens trip distances and requires car travel for nearly all trips. New roads can tilt development patterns toward car-dependent sprawl for decades to come.

Planners should begin to examine the greenhouse gas impacts of building and operating a light rail, implementing HOV/HOT lanes, or fostering compact development near transit. In addition, we should study how adding lanes on the urban fringe may lead to new low-density development and increased emissions.

Puget Sound’s roads and transit measure may have been the last of a dying breed: a transportation package, presented to the voters without a clear accounting of climate impact.

Transportation is the most important piece of our climate change puzzle. Analyzing the impacts of our transportation projects can create real opportunities to move climate protection in the right direction.

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The author of this piece states frankly that "no one had conducted a full climate assessment of the measure." Then several paragraphs later he cites his own colleagues estimate on highway related emissions based on Proposition 1 road projects. Why conduct a partial estimate of emissions on roads and avoid discussing the benefits of transit in this package (in terms of reduced emissions)? If you're going to do something, you might as well do it right. If you're going to do your homework, you might as well finish all of it, right?

Perhaps individuals at Sightline have their own political biases. Don't we all, whether we work for a business, a non-profit think tank, Sound Transit, or Sierra Club?

There is no model or standard methodology to calculate the climate impacts of major transportation projects - period. The author admits this and hopefully understands that a model is only as good as its assumptions and the data used. And models can certainly be wrong - by several orders of magnitude. Take for example, the Light Rail line in Tacoma. Ridership is at least 4-5 times higher than models predicted before the light rail trains started running. Light rail projections in Portland - a city with 44 miles of light rail - were also off base in the early years. Did Clark William-Derry's memo consider this? No, he made a conscious choice to leave GHG savings from other Prop 1 projects like Light Rail out of the picture.

Clearly (as the Seattle PI noted), Sightline may have lost some credibility in the Seattle environmental community by inserting their "nonpartisan research" into the mix within weeks of an election. The highway GHG memo makes one think twice about whether research like this can be truly nonpartisan. I wonder if the author of the memo wants to take the think tank a few steps closer to being an advocacy group like Sierra Club - who has made a transparent choice to be involved in elections.

I'm not arguing that his analysis is incorrect. Rather, he unwillingly (perhaps) helped to over-simplify a larger debate and 70% of that debate (by funding) was about public transit. Perhaps he should have included a few clearly stated assumptions - "this analysis does not address emissions reduced or created by Sound Transit projects included in Prop 1/RTID." But such language does not appear in the memo. And without such language the media will take numbers like "100,000 tons" of GHGs and run with it to play up the split between environmental groups in the area.

Perhaps calling this a victory for a block of Seattle climate change voters is premature. Post-election surveys will probably show that voters were primarily concerned about the price ($18 billion - a neutral estimate, but calling it a "mega-proposal" is not so neutral, eh). After the price tag price shock, voters felt deceived by the packaging of the proposal. And finally voters had other issues that rose to the top - perhaps it was debt that future grandkids would need to pay, or perhaps voters really dislike regressive sales taxes and increased car tabs in general (clearly taxes played a clear role in many votes this year).

Let's be careful what we wish for as well. Tim Gould & Mike O'Brien of Sierra Club and others at Sightline may really like congestion pricing and I understand why. However, it is not the magical solution everyone is looking for. It can certainly be a tool within a larger toolbox. But it will not get us to 20-80% reductions in travel related emissions in the Seattle area. Those who opposed Prop 1 should have a set of big picture solutions on the table - otherwise their arguments ring hallow. Is congestion pricing really the big picture solution that the opposition wants? Is it more equitable than other options?

If there is no standard methodology for assessing the climate impacts of a transportation initiatives, why provide a partial analysis? Ron Sims framed this debate on climate change - BUT we do not know the overall climate impacts of Prop 1. Not one of us has the answer - which suggests that we need to do our homework more thoroughly next time around.

Sightline and Ron Sims' actions may have tipped the scale - and helped to kill light rail for the immediate future. I guess Mr. Sims is turning his back on being part of the solution as a former ST chair and board member. Why not add congestion pricing and other more climate friendly options to the package after it passed?

In 5 to 10 years, many of us will probably regret that many small transportation band-aids rose from the wreckage of defeating Prop 1. Perhaps Seattle voters are just tired of expensive public transit proposals (Monorail fatigue). And so we may enter an era of less light rail, fewer coalitions of labor-enviros-and business in Puget Sound, and much less momentum to fix regional transportation problems.

Posted by: Matt of Ravenna on 7 Nov 07

Personally I'm all for upgrades in electric public transport and against any road spending for the next few generations. Peak oil is here, oil is about to crack the $100 ceiling...and then where? $150? $200? No, money on roads is dead money.

It's time to exponentially crank up the renewable energy and electric public transport (rail is 8 times more energy efficient than trucking) not just because of Global Warming, but because we are simply running out of fossil fuels!

Peak gas follows peak oil by about a decade, and wait for it.... after all those coal-to-liquid plants are built to get through peak oil, peak COAL kicks in around 2025. Not the end of coal... but the end of the easy to get to cheap stuff, the half way mark, the top of the bell curve. Then it's into the more expensive, harder to get at stuff.

There's still more than enough fossil fuels to cook the planet a few times over, so global warming remains a real concern. But how many people realise that the next few decades could see us facing the FINAL oil, gas, and coal crisis as well? It's just not on the radar with the average Dick and Jane.

Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 7 Nov 07

I agree with Dave - needs to be more renewable energy public transport. But in the interim while this mess gets figured out, what about some stopgap measures?

As an example, the King County Transportation Department is extremely proud of their HOV infrastructure. How about letting cars that get above a certain gas mileage drive in the HOV lanes?

Posted by: Brave New Leaf on 8 Nov 07

Yes, the elections this year were interesting. There were very few candidates in the voter's guide that didn't at least pay lip service to environmental causes.

Proposition One would have greatly benefited my life, but it wasn't the right measure for the area, so I accept its defeat.

In the future, I'd like to see more incentives in the area for making efforts to drive cleaner. For example, the Transportation Department is extremely proud of our HOV infrastructure. What about letting cars that get above a certain gas mileage drive in those lanes?

Posted by: Brave New Leaf on 8 Nov 07

I voted against the Roads and Transit package with a lot of reluctance. I would have loved to support the transit portion, but could not bring myself to vote for more highways. I agree with other writers here that we should do everything possible to encourage drivers to radically reduce emissions, including allowing single occupant hybrids and other low-emission vehicles access to the HOV lanes.

Next time, I hope Washington State and/or King County use their heads and detach the transit from the highways.

I can't tell you how agonizing it was to vote along with all the conservative you-can't-tax-me folks. I hope it tortured them as much to vote with all of us tree-hugging environmentalist liberals!

Posted by: Sharon Hultman on 14 Nov 07



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