Early next year, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the region’s four-county planning agency, will release a draft of the update to its Regional Transportation Plan, which unfortunately does not appear to be a climate-focused document. Updated every four years, the plan outlines shared priorities around transportation, many of which are driven by VISION 2050, the agency’s regional housing and employment growth plan. This update to the Regional Transportation Plan will extend the plan’s timeline from 2040 to 2050 to align with that growth plan, which was adopted in 2020.
Both plans are an attempt to dictate how the region as a whole responds to what is expected to be an increase in population of close to two million people across the central Puget Sound in the next 30 years, over a third of which is expected to be accommodated within the region’s five core cities — Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett, and Bremerton. The transportation plan assembles all of the transportation projects that are expected to be completed by all levels of government during those decades and looks at how they serve the region’s overall goals.
The previous version of the regional transportation plan, from 2018, outlined a number of critical transit investments that the region needed to make over the next two decades, but ultimately set its ambitions very low, with the rate of overall trips regionally made by public transit only expected to rise from 3% to 5% in 22 years.
Over the past few months, some details from the draft 2050 plan have been presented by PSRC staff to elected leaders from the region that steward these plans, so we already know a lot about what the plan will look like before it’s officially released for public comment.
Ultimately, the overall plan for transportation is for everyone to drive a little less, on average, but for everyone as a whole to drive a lot more. By 2050, the projection is that the average household in the region will drive 12,300 miles per year, a 23% reduction compared to 2018. Those miles will be offset by an increase in the average resident’s time taking transit and walking or rolling for transportation. Transit boardings across the region are expected to triple by midcentury, and the average central Puget Sound resident is forecast to spend 35 minutes per day getting around via active transportation, up from 29 minutes in 2018.
Those reductions aren’t enough to keep vehicle miles travelled (VMT) from the total number of passenger vehicles on the region’s roads from increasing by approximately 15% by 2050. To accommodate those extra trips, the region would invest in expanded road capacity in addition to expanding light rail, bus rapid transit, passenger ferries, and walking and biking trails. An associated project list includes $12.1 billion in road expansion projects that would add general purpose lane capacity, $10 billion to expanded interchanges to accommodate additional general purpose traffic, and $8.3 billion in brand new roads.
Planners guiding the update looked at traffic congestion regionally as of 2018 and determined that 21% of the region’s roadways were considered congested. After that significant planned expenditure on road capacity, which is completely separate from maintaining and preserving the current street and highway network, regional planners now expect 25% of the region’s roadways to be congested in 2050, which is somehow considered a success when graded against the large increases in population. But a major outcome of this is that users of the road system without alternatives, including heavy haul truck drivers and residents of unincorporated areas of the region that lack transit access, are forecast to individually spend more time sitting in traffic in 2050, as part of our plan. A heavy truck driver spending 56 hours every year sitting in traffic is expected to spend 74 hours in traffic in 2050, really illustrating the urgent need for dedicated freight lanes to take priority over generic road expansion.