The $10 billion question

The current plan to widen I-405 won't reduce traffic, costs too much, and will savage the environment.

HAS INTERSTATE 405 gotten too big for its britches? That's a question voters will have to answer this November, when they cast their ballots on Referendum 51, the statewide proposal to increase the gas tax. If the measure passes, nearly $1.8 billion of the proposed $7.7 billion in new taxes will start flowing toward I-405, making it the largest highway expansion project in recent memory.

I-405 is by far the largest single component of the statewide proposal. It's also the most controversial, both for its impressive size—the $1.77 billion is just a down payment on this $10 billion project —and for its dubious claim as the solution to the Eastside's traffic problems.

Ostensibly, the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) considered different options for I-405 before settling on its "preferred alternative." At one end was the requisite "do nothing" option; at the other, a massive road expansion that would have added six lanes, increased bus service, and widened connecting arterials like state Route 167. Little wonder, then, that WSDOT ultimately settled on what seemed the most moderate of the four alternatives: expanding I-405 for two (and sometimes three) lanes in each direction, adding some bus and vanpool service, and improving freeway interchanges.

But for a road expansion that's supposed to reduce congestion and improve travel times, I-405 promises to do neither. Instead, it's likely to foster new development on the rural fringe, create more traffic on I-405 and arterial streets, and accelerate the demise of salmon and other threatened species. Here are four good reasons to oppose this highway from hell and push for a plan that supports alternatives like toll lanes, trip reduction, and transit.

1. It won't reduce congestion.

Proponents of I-405 expansion, such as Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, insist that the project will bring traffic on the highway back to "the way congestion was in 1985"—you know, when Renton was a cow pasture. "Your life is going to be better," McDonald vows. WSDOT has also been quick to tout the expansion as a congestion cure-all. In its preferred alternative, the transportation agency claims the expanded roadway will "reduce congestion [and] fix choke points" in places like SR-167 in Renton, where congestion (defined as average travel speeds of less than 45 mph, according to I-405 project manager Craig Stone) can last up to 12 hours a day.

But decades of research into the effects of road expansion show quite the opposite: Far from solving the problem of congestion, new capacity actually generates new traffic, causing people to change their driving behaviors—by driving at rush hour, taking longer or more frequent trips, or routing trips onto newly expanded freeways—and producing sprawl in suburban cities on the fringes of the expanded highway. Conversely, congestion can actually help prevent more congestion by encouraging people to time their trips around peak periods, drive alternative routes, or find ways of getting to work besides driving alone.

"People see that initial capacity and are willing to take more trips and longer trips in the first several years," says Peter Hurley, director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. But pressure on the system builds, and after about five years, sprawl—office parks, cul-de-sac communities, and big-box retail stores like Kmart and Home Depot—starts to sprout in formerly rural areas, and roads that were once wide open become conduits for gridlock. "It's cheap and easy for developers to buy land on the edge and ask the public to build the wide roads to get there," Hurley says. Which makes it easier for people who work in Bothell to buy houses on the eastern edge of Bellevue—and drive alone to their office parks in their SUVs. WSDOT, by the way, is not unaware of this paradox—the agency's own figures reveal that expanding I-405 by four lanes will only increase the average speed in the corridor by about 1 mph.

Eleven years ago, the state of Washington adopted the Growth Management Act, which required the state's fastest-growing counties to develop their infrastructure in a way that controls sprawl, protects the environment, and concentrates growth in urban areas. Now, with sprawl threatening to overwhelm road capacity on the Eastside, we're at a do-or-die moment. Our options: Give in to the road warriors who say congestion can only be fixed with more concrete, or find other solutions that will make a difference in the long term.

2. It's too expensive.

Whatever I-405's merits as a congestion reliever, the cost is sure to be jaw dropping. Transportation Choices' Hurley calls I-405 "the gold-plated Yugo of transportation plans—it's gold-plated because it's very expensive, and it's a Yugo because it doesn't deliver much." At $10 billion, I-405 would cost five times as much as Sound Transit's light rail, which has been maligned by critics for its expense. "When all this is said and done," says Transportation Choices' Kevin Shively, "Sound Transit's going to be chump change compared to I-405."

That's a bitter irony for folks like King County Council member Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, who's spent years battling light-rail critics who say Sound Transit is pledging too much money for a system that does too little. "For someone to say that $2 billion spent on light rail is a waste of money and that $10 billion on I-405 is a good investment is just wacko," Pelz says.

In addition to the $1.7 billion that would be allocated to I-405 under Referendum 51, it could wind up with another $1.3 billion if a regional plan, currently being hashed out by the King, Pierce, and Snohomish county councils, is also approved by the voters. But even if the state and regional packages pass as currently proposed, they'd provide less than a third of I-405's funding, leaving huge swaths of roadway untouched, a scenario that could lead to worse bottlenecks than before. (This is especially true if WSDOT starts I-405 construction in Renton and builds northward toward central trouble spots in places like downtown Bellevue.) And nobody knows where the balance of money to pay for the expansion would come from. "It's really pretty dumb to plan for and start building something that you have nowhere near the money to finish," Hurley says.

But if road proponents like Sen. McDonald get their way, I-405's $10 billion price tag could be just the beginning. McDonald estimates it would cost around $32 billion to pay for all the highway improvements that will be required in the Puget Sound region between now and 2022. So far, the state and regional plans call for about $3 billion to pay for I-405. "If that's a start, where is the money coming from for the finish?" McDonald asks. "The answer is, it isn't. There is no manna from heaven. It's not coming from somewhere else; it's coming from these bills."

3. It's an environmental disaster in the making.

Sprawl ain't pretty, but it's not only suburban mansions and Popsicle trees that are making ugly in Renton and Bothell. Sprawl also means pollution: Noise, air, and water contamination that threaten endangered salmon, fill the air with toxic diesel and carbon monoxide fumes, and could irreparably damage more than 140 streams and wetlands along I-405's meandering path. Under WSDOT's preferred alternative, the amount of paved surface in the I-405 corridor would increase by around 800 acres, according to the department's figures; nearly 80 acres of wetlands would be impacted by the expansion.

Driving along I-405, you might be surprised to discover that wetlands exist at all in the concrete jungles of Bellevue and Kirkland. And, truth be told, they aren't much to look at: Scrubby tall grasses and cattails are about all you can see from the roadside, and even that has been heavily colonized by invasive species like blackberries and Scotch broom, which proliferate by roads and near construction sites. But the streams and rivers that crisscross I-405, many of them already inundated with storm runoff from the highway, are home to three threatened chinook salmon populations. "We're talking about scores and scores of stream crossings and acres and acres and acres of wetlands, which are so critically important to aquatic health, being filled in for this project," says Jan Hasselman, an attorney in the Northwestern Field Office of the National Wildlife Federation.

Construction can have a particularly devastating impact on salmon-bearing streams, Hasselman says, because an increase in the level of impervious cover—concrete—in an area causes water to flow unfiltered into streams and rivers, washing away the rocks and logs that salmon need to rest and lay their eggs. If there's a drought, depleted creeks can dry up or quit flowing entirely, stopping migratory salmon in their tracks.

WSDOT says it plans to mitigate I-405's environmental impact by restoring habitat and wetlands and improving stream quality outside the I-405 corridor. But what that mitigation would consist of is, at present, fairly murky; generally, Hasselman says, mitigation means "let us trash this area, and we'll go fix a different area." In the context of wetlands, Hasselman says, mitigation means "rebuilding" wetlands elsewhere, an approach Hasselman likens to putting up a stand of pine trees and calling it a forest.

In contrast, environmental activists typically argue for a "least harm" approach to environmental mitigation, on the presumption that if you don't mess it up in the first place, you won't have to go back and fix it. "I don't think we're going to get salmon recovery in the Puget Sound by sacrificing the areas that are currently in poor condition," Hasselman says. "We need to be restoring the areas that are trashed."

4. There's a better way.

Transit proponents and environmentalists believe there is another solution: Spend a moderate amount of money to widen I-405 where it's needed—between Tukwila and Bellevue, for example—and invest more heavily in other alternatives, such as transit and trip-reduction strategies, that promise a bigger return on a smaller investment. "We're not saying you shouldn't do anything to fix I-405; we're saying they've picked a plan that doesn't make sense," says Aaron Ostrom, director of 1000 Friends of Washington, an environmental group that focuses on land use.

The current preferred I-405 alternative would increase bus service by about 60 percent; 1000 Friends and Transportation Choices would like to see that increase and have it supplemented by commuter rail, trip-reduction programs, and improvements for bikes, pedestrians, and car pools.

But Eastside officials like Rob McKenna, a Republican who represents Bellevue on the King County Council, say environmentalists aren't being realistic about the kind of changes habitual car commuters will accept. "If all people ever looked at in transportation was getting the lowest price, everyone would be driving a Yugo," McKenna says. "People don't want to drive Yugos." They want to drive Land Rovers, Expeditions, and Humvees.

Anecdotally, however, alternatives to road building do seem to be paying off. In the Puget Sound region, a trip-reduction program that subsidized bus fares, paid people to give up their parking stalls at work, and helped fund employees' use of Flexcars cost the state $3 million. That relatively paltry investment leveraged another $35 million in employer funding, according to WSDOT figures, and reduced delay an average of 6 percent during the peak morning commute. Other alternatives include so-called "HOT"—or high- occupancy toll—lanes, which allow solo car commuters to pay to avoid jammed general-purpose lanes. (High-occupancy vehicles could drive in the lanes for free.)

Environmentalists aren't delusional; they know that even with incremental improvements, I-405 may have to be widened to accommodate the thousands of people who commute along that corridor. But, they argue, it doesn't make sense to commit to radical surgery before at least trying holistic options. "Studies keep showing that you can't build your way out of congestion," says the Wildlife Federation's Jan Hasselman. "So we're saying, 'Let's move aggressively with [managing demand] and transit and a couple of highway fixes, and circle back and see where we are. And if it hasn't worked, then we can consider other options.'"

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