Feb 14, 2023
On this midweek show, Ryan Packer returns for a round-up of regional transportation issues with Crystal. Ryan’s efforts to raise public awareness around traffic safety issues through in-the-minute reporting of cars hitting pedestrians and bicyclists sparks conversation about the Legislature’s aim of changing driver behavior through bills currently under consideration and their funding of bike and pedestrian safety improvements in last year’s transportation package. They then address the issue of the Columbia River Crossing Megaproject being pushed forward with a decades-old scope, an uncertain funding plan, and non-consideration of climate change or equity. Finally, Crystal and Ryan highlight the disconnect observed in two regional planning bodies with the Puget Sound Regional Council adopting a transportation plan unaligned with our 2030 climate goals and the Sound Transit Board making decisions uninformed by transit rider experience.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Ryan Packer has been covering transportation and land use at The Urbanist since 2015. Their work has also appeared in the Seattle Bike Blog, BikePortland, and PubliCola. They don't own a bike.
“State Proposals Aim to Lower Traffic Deaths by Improving Driver Behavior” by Ryan Packer from PubliCola
“Navigating the Move Ahead Washington Transportation Package with Ryan Packer” from Hacks & Wonks
“Washington State Is Losing Control of the Columbia Interstate Bridge Replacement Megaproject” by Ryan Packer from The Urbanist
“Adopted Regional Transportation Plan Isn’t Aligned With 2030 Climate Goals” by Ryan Packer from The Urbanist
“Elected Leaders Must Press Forward With Study of SR 99 and I-5 Everett Link Alternatives” by Stephen Fesler from The Urbanist
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, I am excited to be able to welcome Ryan Packer to the show, who's been covering transportation and land use at The Urbanist since 2015. Their work has also appeared in Seattle Bike Blog, Bike Portland, PubliCola. They don't own a bike, but they cover transportation and related issues as well or better than anyone else in the region - an absolute impactful reporter that we have here. Welcome to the show, Ryan.
[00:01:07] Ryan Packer: Thanks so much for having me.
[00:01:09] Crystal Fincher: So what got you interested in the first place in reporting on these issues in particular?
[00:01:16] Ryan Packer: Basically it was being a transportation user in Seattle. I worked for a restaurant company close to downtown and lived in Capitol Hill, and basically all the ways to get to work that the City was trying to encourage people to use - walking or transit - were unpleasant or infeasible basically. And once you start picking at threads as to why that is, you quickly learn all the different elements of the transportation system that most people aren't aware of - what I like to call the government ecosystem around transportation - and all the ways that it's very broken.
[00:01:59] Crystal Fincher: Definitely very broken. One of the things that you've become known for is the unique style of reporting that you have for pedestrian-involved collisions by cars and other vehicles. How did you get started doing that? And what is the kind of feedback that you've received about your reporting there?
[00:02:22] Ryan Packer: Yeah, so I basically started noticing that there wasn't a lot of in-the-minute reporting on people getting hit by cars, basically - people walking or biking. Essentially The Seattle Times, or daily newspaper even - in Washington or elsewhere - is only going to cover someone getting hit when ultimately it leads to someone's death. And I started to think about how this leads to a disproportionate - started to think about how this leads to a wrong perception in public at large, in terms of how safe it is to walk around and bike around. Obviously it's not intended to scare people or make people not want to walk or bike, but just to give people an accurate read of how often this is happening. Because the information is out there and once I started pulling it out and realizing this is happening right around the corner from me - I might not have even known this had happened - the reception has been pretty positive in terms of people wanting this information, wanting to know what's happening particularly on their own neighborhood streets.
[00:03:41] Crystal Fincher: And there's a lot of action being talked about in response to the crisis that is pedestrian and bike safety. What is being talked about - I guess we'll start off at the state level - just in terms of safety, and then we can talk about general, other transportation-related issues, but what's on the docket there?
[00:04:04] Ryan Packer: This session is not a big transportation year, but the traffic safety crisis is the big transportation issue. And so there are a number of bills that are being considered and most of them are trying to directly go after driver behavior. And so we have a lot of bills that are aimed at, say, specific types of drivers. There's a bill to lower the blood alcohol content threshold for a DUI from 0.08 to 0.05 - making people think a little bit more closely about how much they're drinking when they get behind the wheel of a car. There's a bill to target 18 to 25-year old drivers who don't have to take a driver education course - 18-year old doesn't have to take a driver's education course that their 17-year old sibling does. It doesn't make a lot of sense and it shows in the data in terms of the crash rates for young adults like that don't end up taking that course. There's a bill to target older drivers - a little bit less prescriptive - but there's some data that suggests that once you hit a certain age, your capabilities behind the wheel should be assessed a little bit more frequently. A bill to give people a warning label on their car, before they purchase it, in terms of - This vehicle is large and more likely to severely hurt somebody walking or biking if you hit them. And that bill would also impose an additional fine if you were involved in a crash like that. And so all these bills are looking at individual behavior, what I would call bad driver targeting. Ultimately this is just one aspect of the sort of national best practices that everyone's moving toward in terms of what's called a safe systems approach.
But the important thing to note - while everyone's talking about driver behavior this session - last session was the transportation investment year. And you actually had me on the program to talk about the Move Ahead Washington package last year. But just to go through what we know about it since then and what it's going to do, it includes a lot of money for cities to ask for for bike and pedestrian safety. The problem with that is it is relying on people to raise their hands and also doesn't require that the funds go to the most impactful areas. So for example, a city like Kent doesn't have to request funds for the intersection, say, that the most people are getting hurt at. They can say, Oh, we want to do a project over here. And there's not a lot that the state can say, Oh, you should do something different. They have to pick the projects people are asking for. But there's another very important provision in that bill, which is a new complete streets mandate for state highways. And so we're getting into a mandate - sort of a blanket change - it's going to be much more impactful. It basically says that any time that the State Department of Transportation goes out to fix, or repair, or maintain a state highway - they have to look at whether or not that state highway is up to current standards - whether or not it has sidewalks, bike lanes, and whether drivers are currently driving really the appropriate speeds on that highway. So the Legislature allocated $1.5 billion in Move Ahead Washington to overall highway maintenance, so it's a lot of money but it's also not a lot of money in terms of how much maintenance our state highways need. But since the passage of that law, the State Department of Transportation has announced that they expect to use about half of that amount to upgrade safety infrastructure for people walking and biking on state highways - about $750 million, which if it ends up coming to pass would be the biggest investment in safe infrastructure in statewide history - possibly in a lot of states.
[00:08:42] Crystal Fincher: And that was some positive news, hedged positive news. Seems like we're making progress but there is so much to do that sometimes it feels like we're trying to mop up the ocean a little bit. You talked about some of the best practices and some of the bills going after one dimension of that, which is driver behavior. What are the other recommended best practices? What are things that legislators should be talking about?
[00:09:12] Ryan Packer: One element that has not quite made it to the Legislature is vehicle design in terms of - I talked a little bit about that warning label - but in terms of actually requiring that cars not be designed to hurt people is one aspect of this sort of safe systems approach - the actual design of our vehicles. It's gotten larger over the past couple decades - the trend toward SUVs, which has led to negative direction in terms of the pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities. And so when you're talking about that, you're talking about something that would impact everyone on the road as opposed to the so-called bad driver. Even if you're putting a warning label - that's putting the onus on individuals like - Oh, you bought this car so you should know what it's like, as opposed to this car is on the market and it's a systemic issue in terms of offering these for sale. And so, but once you start to get into sort of how many different drivers would be impacted, the political will to actually make the changes is diminishing. For example, in terms of driver's education - when you talk about making drivers age 18 to 25 do the driver's ed course, that's one change but a 24-year old who is tested in another state can also just go ahead and transfer their driver's license into Washington without having to do that driver's ed course. Or a driver who's 35 and maybe needs to have that driver course again. Roger Millar, the State Secretary of Transportation, likes to note that the last time that he was tested for his driver behavior was in the 1970s and that there's been a couple of changes in state laws since that time - and that's true for a lot of people on our roads. But once again, that would apply to a lot of people getting back in the queue for driver's testing.
[00:11:10] Crystal Fincher: Does road design play a role in the safe systems approach?
[00:11:15] Ryan Packer: Absolutely road design plays a role. It's a key component, and that's what I was getting at with the complete streets requirement doing a systemic look at whether our state highways are designed to standards. There's not really a requirement for local jurisdictions to do that - cities like Seattle have complete streets ordinances, but there's a lot of ways that they can get around those. But you're talking about the need to - number one, make sure that people are driving at the appropriate speeds - one of the biggest factors in terms of whether or not someone is likely to be hurt or even killed in a crash is the speed that they're going. And you often have cities lowering speed limits, but the design speed - the speed that drivers feel like they can appropriately go on a road - may still be a lot higher. And so you have a lot of streets where those speeds remain very high. And then you also have the issue of distance for crossings for pedestrians - whether or not someone is likely to be able to safely cross that street is a big determinant of how safe it is, and whether or not there's safe infrastructure for people to walk along it or bike along it. One thing I like to always notice is - one of the biggest impacts that adding protected bike lanes to urban cities is - is the impact on pedestrians. You're often - one, separating cars from pedestrians with another lane in between them which is always great and makes things safer, but you're also adding protected turns - making sure the drivers aren't turning across the bike lanes - also great for people walking. So these kind of have these compounding effect, where it improves everything for everyone on the street not just someone on a bike.
[00:13:15] Crystal Fincher: Now there are a few other things going on in the Legislature, even besides some of these pedestrian-related and safety-related enhancements. One of those issues is one that they thought they dealt with and maybe mostly wrapped up last year, but that has come back with a vengeance - that a lot of people are looking at with concern - and that's the Columbia River Crossing Megaproject. Where does that stand, and what has happened that they need to tackle now?
[00:13:48] Ryan Packer: So this project has been around for almost two decades - it's a needed project to replace the two spans of the I-5, between Washington and Oregon - one of which was built in the 1910s. The previous attempt to replace this bridge, which is called the Columbia River Crossing, included seven miles of highway expansion, five interchanges, light rail as a component - several sort of huge projects within projects - that made the project very expensive and expansive. Ultimately in 2013, it was the Washington State Senate that didn't want to pony up the money for that project - in part because of light rail's inclusion, in part because of a opposition to having tolls from the Washington side to go into Oregon. That project languished for several years until it was restarted by Governor Brown and Inslee in 2019, and has been moving forward - but the key thing to remember with this is that we're still using the federal approval from the Columbia River Crossing, even though we've now rebranded it with a very flashy campaign called the Interstate Bridge Replacement, or the IBR. It has the environmental approval of the Columbia River Crossing and that includes the scope - and so the seven miles of highway, five interchanges - it basically is still in there. And we went through a whole process to look at how we might tweak that, whether or not we might include climate change as an actual purpose and need to address with this project, or whether we might want to include equity as an actual thing to address. Ultimately they decided that that would disrupt the project schedule - they're very intent on replacing this, starting construction by 2025 - it's not entirely clear that's going to happen, it being 2023 already, but that's what they're aiming for. And at the end of last year they just came up with a new project cost estimate based on all the new tweaks that they want to do to this thing, and it could end up costing about - $7.5 billion is the high end estimate. It would ultimately be the most expensive single highway project in the Pacific Northwest and among the top 10 in the nation. And so the question is whether the scope is too wide and expansive for - what we're talking about is a very needed bridge, not a highway.
[00:16:55] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. And with that expanded cost estimate and the now inflated cost that we've seen, that puts them at least a billion dollars under budget - and there's a question about where that billion dollars is coming from. Where does that stand?
[00:17:11] Ryan Packer: So they have a financial concept plan that assumes that they're going to get a lot of money from the federal government - the bipartisan infrastructure bill included a mega-grant program, kind of orchestrated by Washington Senator Maria Cantwell, that kind of had the IBR in mind when they were looking at this grant program. And so they're counting on an incredible amount of money from the federal government - around $2-3 billion - which is wild. They've already gotten $1 billion from the State of Washington in last year's Move Ahead Washington package, but they're banking on Oregon chipping in another billion dollars this year - which would get them to have that matching funds for the federal grants. Interestingly enough, new governor of Oregon Tina Kotek released her budget very early this year and didn't actually have a billion dollars in it for that project, which is very interesting because it was a very big priority of her predecessor, a very big priority of sort of her old colleagues in the Oregon Legislature - and so she clearly sees it as not one of the top priorities. She's currently allocating a lot of money for housing and not highways.
[00:18:41] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, an interesting conundrum which has definitely been scrutinized and continues to be challenged - because of the broadness of the scope - does it require that many lanes, that much impact on the local area? You talked about equity being put aside in terms of - because they wanted to stick to their timeline. And certainly people in that region who are familiar with the impacts of the type of pollution that's created by cars being spewed in the neighborhood and what those health impacts, like asthma and other things, are for local communities and schools there in that area.
[00:19:25] Ryan Packer: So that also gets into the issue of tolls, which I mentioned were a sticking point with the old project. They're banking on a lot of money also coming in from tolls. The first point with that is obviously we don't quite know what the actual impact on traffic volume on the bridge is going to be from those tolls, and so it has a - do we need to have all that capacity to - if we're going to put the tolling on the bridge, what is that relationship going to look like? But also, as we've seen in Washington with the SR99 tunnel and some of the other tolling programs that the state has undergone in the past couple years, sort of banking on a high number of toll users to pay back your project is not necessarily the most sound financial plan.
[00:20:20] Crystal Fincher: It is not, as we have learned in those other situations that you referenced. I also wanted to touch on one of our regional bodies at the moment - the Puget Sound Regional Council. And we have a number of bodies that are involved in transportation planning, a number of regional bodies - this is one of them - but a number of these have also talked about their commitment to addressing climate change, to reducing greenhouse gases, setting targets and we have a 2030 target that they're attempting to hit. And recently they announced that they are not on track to hit the 2030 climate goal. Where do they stand on that, and are they talking about anything that will put us back on track to meeting those targets?
[00:21:09] Ryan Packer: Yeah, so this is a body that not a lot of people pay attention to - it's the four county - King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap County - regional planning body. Its biggest role is figuring out where to allocate federal funds, and so it's a conduit for a lot of federal money - and so that's how it's how it gets the power that it does. Ultimately they have to approve a regional transportation plan that kind of looks at the entire region's goals around transportation. They did that last year, and originally it was just looking at the climate impacts by 2050 - sort of the long term goals around reducing transportation emissions. Thanks to a lot of the leaders on the regional council, including the president - King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci - they were like, Hey, we should actually be looking at 2030 to see if we're on track or we have to do a lot more work. And that analysis just came back and shows a pretty big gap in terms of where we're expected to be - 13%, which is a huge emissions gap. It doesn't sound huge, but it's - when you talk about the emissions of the entire region. And they also looked at sort of some models around how to fill that gap. And that's the frustrating thing about their models - which is basically they showed that transit, expanding transit, is not really going to close the gap. And in terms of - because our growth strategy as a region is not quite going to catch up to where we need to be by 2030 in terms of having actual people close to transit. First of all, should give some direction to our local leaders in terms of what they should be doing around transit access and station planning. But also the model seems a little bit behind the times in terms of being able to actually account for sort of the actual behavior of people. It also noted that if we put a hold on sort of the roadway expansions - which add capacity, add cars, add emissions - that it would - their models are showing that that wouldn't have an impact. And a lot of people are questioning that, including Claudia Balducci
[00:23:48] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, a lot of us questioning that - with some of the justification that they're giving essentially being we add lanes but that's gonna help traffic. And if people spend less time in traffic, then that's going to neutralize the emissions that come from the increased traffic somehow.
[00:24:05] Ryan Packer: The same arguments that we've been hearing for a couple of decades - just haven't borne out.
[00:24:09] Crystal Fincher: Yeah - kind of challenging there. Also Sound Transit, another regional body that is very involved in our regional transit system - they operate our light rail and heavy rail Sounder system. Where do they stand in terms of climate goals and their kind of overall operation?
[00:24:33] Ryan Packer: Ultimately, Sound Transit isn't really charged with making sure that the region's holding to its climate goals. They're being asked to build a regional spine to our transit network, which is - it's very expensive. It's gonna be a lot of years of work to get that sort of spine from Everett to Tacoma. And ultimately, it's not going to be as impactful as it could be if regional government - cities, counties - don't do the maximum to ensure that people are living by the stations, people can access those stations. And so that's one way that the sort of siloed system of our transportation ecosystem in central Puget Sound is not optimizing outcomes in terms of climate and also just all those other more immediate impacts - livability, air quality, things like that. Sound Transit is tasked with building the system, and the way that its political board is structured - the incentives are basically to make sure that your community is getting some transit and not that the region as a whole is set up for success. One way that that's epitomized is the planned deviation over to Paine Field in Everett - that a lot of people are questioning the sort of utility of making a detour on light rail to go to an airport that not a lot of people are really going to be able to utilize by the time it's done - and so, it's adding a couple like 10 minutes to every trip to Everett, as opposed to other ways to serve that. But it's seen as - taking away that would be seen as bad for Everett.
[00:26:30] Crystal Fincher: And this is a challenge that we see with this board overall and some of the confounding decisions that are made. What is the composition of this board, and what kind of investment do its members have in - personal investment - in public transit?
[00:26:47] Ryan Packer: The board is made up of local leaders from around the region, so ultimately you have people whose investment in transit is tied directly to their own performance as an elected official, not necessarily their own experience as a transit rider. It's not clear how many of our transit board members are actual daily transit riders or, in terms of their ties to the overall transit community. And so, like I said, it's all about making sure that you're delivering the projects for your city. And so there's just a lot of sort of bartering and siloing.
[00:27:26] Crystal Fincher: Overall, with your perspective on transportation and transit in the region, what do you think are the most important things, I guess, on the docket for people to address and ways to address them? What would your words of wisdom be for those involved in the policy making?
[00:27:45] Ryan Packer: I think the first thing I would say is that people involved in transit decision making should get out and ride transit - see what it's like - use that experience to actually make decisions. And get away from the map on the screen, in terms of looking at the actual impacts. I think a lot of people are getting very cynical about the decision making processes in central Puget Sound at all levels of government - from the City of Seattle to the highest echelons at Sound Transit - in terms of where the priorities of the decision makers are. I do think we see that party shifting a little bit, possibly - even at the City of Seattle level - toward people-centered projects, but ultimately the status quo bias is so embedded into - a lot of these - I don't want to say infrastructure, but the actual decision making processes - that it's very hard to turn that ship very quickly at all.
[00:29:05] Crystal Fincher: Thank you so much, Ryan, for your time today. Thank you for just enlightening us - and your coverage - it's just been so impactful. I know that even for people who follow these issues and like you talked about - looking at the data, seeing maps on the screen and this happening - it's just impactful in a different way to see it reported in live time. And just the way that you get around our region and connect the dots on how what we do across the region impacts each other, and how we should be addressing transit and transportation overall. So thank you very much.
[00:29:48] Ryan Packer: Well, thanks so much for all that you do, Crystal.
[00:29:50] Crystal Fincher: Thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler, our assistant producer is Shannon Cheng, and our Post-Production Assistant is Bryce Cannatelli. You can find Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks, and you can follow me @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered right to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave us a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.