No New Highways Is a 21st Century Imperative

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Governor Inslee with a mask speaking in front of I-5 Ship Canal Bridge.
Governor Inslee urged state legislators to pass a transportation package. (KOMO)

On March 5th, Governor Jay Inslee stood in front of the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge in Seattle and urged the state legislature to pass a transportation package this session. Just what should be in the package is less certain, but we at The Urbanist wanted to join the clarion call led by the Disability Mobility Initiative and the Front and Centered Coalition: Washington State must cease spending on new highways. No excuses.

The more pressing needs are around making our roads safe for people walking, rolling, and biking and boosting transit service to lower climate emissions. We’re not doing enough on climate; Washington state’s emissions have continued to climb, with transportation the leading sector. While climate was mentioned, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay was the only speaker at the press conference to focus on transit, which, unlike highway widening, actually represents a way out of our climate death spiral.

Different proposals at the state legislature have varied in how much they emphasize highway expansion versus transit, road safety, and climate action. None completely nail it, but the Forward Washington package in particular represents the wrong approach. The project list is heavily weighted toward highway widening.

Senator Steve Hobbs has been pushing his Forward Washington package since 2019. (Senate Democrats)

Governor Inslee emphasized a maintenance-first approach, but he also highlighted the need for highway expansion projects like the I-5 Columbia River Crossing and US-2 Trestle.

“I’m confident when we pass a package we will have maintenance all across the state of Washington, and obviously maintenance is not the only thing we need,” Inslee said. “We are a growing state. We are a robust state, and we are a building state. We need to build projects. We need to rebuild the bridge and have a new bridge on the I-5 over Columbia. We know the US-2 Trestle, a favorite project of Senator Hobbs who is now galvanizing some transportation efforts in the Senate… So we need to build.”

Likewise, when we hosted Roger Millar, who heads the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), at our monthly meetup this month, he defended some of his agency’s planned expansion projects (notably the Puget Sound Gateway project extending SR-167 and SR-509) while also stressing maintenance first and acknowledging the need for action on safety.

But what does maintenance first mean if billions and billions more dollars are invested in highway expansion? It’s time for Washington state to quit highway widening cold turkey rather than continue to feed its addiction while talking a big game about getting sober around climate and road safety.

Admittedly, this is a lot easier said than done. The highway lobby is very effective at promoting their projects and spreading highway myths, and they have been laying the groundwork for decades on some of the proposals. Drawing the boundary between maintenance and preservation on one hand and expansion on the other can be a little murky — at least if you don’t read The Urbanist. However, adding lanes and interchanges is clearly an expansion of highway infrastructure even if it’s dressed up with tolling or carpool lanes.

For example, while the Columbia River Crossing has been presented as an earthquake readiness project this time around, it in fact remains a sprawl-inducing supersizing of I-5 in Clark County with some greenwashing elements. The era of letting highway expansion megaprojects slide in exchange for a new sidewalk, trail, or park should be over.

A rendering showing the Columbia River Crossing project at Hayden Island. A recreational trail can’t make up for all those highway lanes and no technology can stop this from being pollution generating. (Credit: WSDOT)

The US-2 Trestle has been presented as solving a troublesome bottleneck and improving transit by adding a high occupancy transit (HOT) lane. However, WSDOT has admitted widening the trestle would likely move the bottleneck onto I-5. That’s not much benefit for a multi-billion-dollar project.

Three packages are circulating in the Washington State Legislature — two in the senate and one in the house. The House package is the most promising with $5 billion for transit proposed. On the flip side, Senator Steve Hobbs’ Forward Washington lavishes the most spending on highways and the least on safety while flirting with a bike tax, continuing his misguided approach from previous sessions. Senator Rebecca Saldaña’s Evergreen Plan is a big improvement, spending less on highway expansion and more on transit and street safety.

We firmly believe that what’s in the package matters. Any old plan won’t do. Until our state can meet its climate goals and its Vision Zero pledge to end traffic deaths, adding more highway capacity would only be doubling down on a failing strategy and welcoming more carnage.

The Urbanist Editorial Board consists of Natalie Bicknell, Stephen Fesler, Shaun Kuo, Ryan Packer, and Doug Trumm.

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11 Comments
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RossB

Right now, the US-2 trestle is 2 lanes westbound. According to that survey, there are two proposals for the westbound US-2 trestle:

1) Add one general purpose lane and an HOV lane.
2) Add two general purpose lanes.

The only things we should be considering is this:

3) Add one HOV lane.

An HOV (a car pool or bus) would be able to hook into the HOV lanes at I-5, or go right into Everett. This would be a major transit improvement. In contrast, adding general purpose lane(s) doesn’t really do anything, since the vast majority of riders are trying to get on I-5 south. It would be like having a four lane on-ramp to a freeway that isn’t moving.

I’m not saying that third project is even worth it, but it should be the only project we are considering.

What is true for the US-2 trestle is true of the Columbia crossing. We shouldn’t be spending money on general purpose traffic, since that will just inevitably fill up. Adding bus lanes, on the other hand, is worth considering.

Neither of these projects are really “new freeways”. That description applies to the 509/167 “Puget Sound Gateway” project, that was funded last session. That is by far the worst infrastructure boondoggle in that last 20 years (and that includes the SR 99 tunnel). It is unnecessary, and will only shift traffic around. At best it is a giant giveaway to the trucking industry (reducing freight on the trains). At worst it is just a sprawl-inducing waste of money.

AJ M

I think the 3 lane HOV option is clearly a good investment given the Snohomish river is a natural chokepoint (https://humantransit.org/2010/01/a-carbonneutral-seattle.html). The trestle’s river crossing is the exact geography where transit priority can be most powerful. Everett has the same geographic constraints that make transit so compelling when traveling in/out of central Seattle, but it lacks the transit infrastructure to leverage those chokepoints.

As I argued below, I think it’s pretty straightforward to imagine SOV tolling + HOV lanes can be paired with sufficient satellite P&R parking to create the demand for good, all day transit between Everett and Lake Stevens. Further, this infrastructure will support better transit onwards to Granite Falls, Snohomish, and Monroe, all three of which have great pre-war town centers where organic, infill growth should be encouraged.

My understanding is adding “just” an HOV lane is not on the table but will be the preferred option coming out of the EIS given WSDOT’s own study shows the 4-lanes alternative does not create SOV time savings. The new trestle would be 3 or 4 lanes, and with the 3 lane option, the 3rd lane becomes HOV as it approaches the I5 interchange.
https://wsdot.wa.gov/planning/studies/us2/wb-trestle/home

I suspect the reason it is not HOV the full length of the trestle is because the US2+204 interchange is where the 3-lanes will begin, and traffic will be allowed some distance to merge into the two SOV lanes before the 3rd lane becomes HOV. All that matters is the HOV lane beginning far enough east to bypass SOV congestion, so I think it’s reasonable to use some of that 3rd lane for merging. I suppose WSDOT could ‘value engineer’ the trestle to be only 2 lanes in the middle, but keeping it 3 the full length seems more resilient given the occasional closure of 1 lane for a disabled vehicle, repaving, etc., and WSDOT can always come in later and covert the whole lane to HOV if that’s what is needed to ensure transit priority.

Stephen Edwards

how do you think freight gets from the trains to your grocery store, hardware store, how is food transported from the fields to your plate? Highways aren’t filled with commuters. they are crucial to every aspect of American life. stuff is moved on orads, the military is mobilzed on them.the touring boradway shows arrive on them, business who offer jobs absolutely are totally reliant on roads. IF YOUR POPULATION IS GETTING LARGER, CAPACITY OF ROADS MUST BE INCREASED or quality of life suffers as everyone is slowed down in their pursuits.

AJ M

Is anyone presenting the US2 replacement as ‘solving’ a bottleneck? I’ve always seen it as first a replacement of end-of-life infrastructure, and secondarily as an improvement to transit infrastructure in a ‘hey might as well bolt on some transit to the mega-project” way. There’s a reason no one is proposing HOV/HOT US2 infrastructure independent of the trestle replacement.

Sure, there’s risk the replacement of end of life assets because a vehicle for highway expansion, like the current CRC plans, but that’s independent of the need for replacing or removing the highways. “Do nothing” is not a valid long term solution, unless you literally want to watch the structure crumble into the water.

The political lift is delivering on long term replacements to the Columbia (I5) and Snohomish river (UW2) crossing while minimizing the expansion of car infrastructure. “No new highways” is a nifty slogan but but can be just as obfuscating as greenwashing when it comes to the long term management of our highway infrastructure, unless your position is we should simply remove all freeways as they age out (intriguing idea in Seattle, but a horrible idea in the most of the state)

Douglas Trumm

“It’s time to talk about one of the most notorious chokepoints in Snohomish County, the daily backups on westbound Highway 2 where it meets I-5 in Everett,” is how KIRO’s coverage began and they go on to highlight how it would greatly increase capacity (and other coverage like Q13 Fox was similar). https://mynorthwest.com/2209724/wsdot-new-us-2-trestle/?

The trestle is cut from the same cloth as Columbia Crossing. It’s enabling sprawl that already happened and encouraging more. We’re pretty clear that adding lanes is the line in the sand for us. If a bridge is no longer structurally sound, then by all means repair or replace it. But the question should be if we can narrow lanes not widen them. And the priority in the package should be supporting the other modes: walking, rolling, biking and transit.

RossB

It really gets down to no new general purpose lanes. If you want to add HOV lanes, go for it. But no new general purpose lanes.

Oh, and no new freeways either. 167/509 (https://wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/Gateway/default.htm) is definitely a new freeway, and doesn’t replace any aging infrastructure.

AJ M

Fair enough, I had not seen that coverage. I was anchoring more on the official commentary, but admittedly Puget Sound Gateway was for freight, so I should take the official spin with a grain of salt.

But I don’t see how a larger structure necessarily inducing demand if it is paired with robust tolling. I know this is a stretch, but it’s plausible that the new structure might spur better travel patterns if the tolling deters SOV commuting and new HOV & biking infrastructure supports more compelling alternatives to driving. Right now Lake Steven is a classic fringe city/exburb, and it’s very hard to CT to provide bus service that’s competitive; there is a future state where taking the bus is both cheaper and faster than driving to major destinations (i.e. Everett, Boeing, and Link).

I think The Urbanst should be open to adding lanes in this specific case, if those lanes are HOV and paired with substantial tolling (SR520 peak roundtrip is $8.60; something like $10 round trip seems like a good starting point).

Stephen Edwards

HOT lanes with the sole purpose of maintaining free flowing traffic at least 45 mph have the greatest mechanism which gives total control over a lane or highway forever. The toll rises to discourage too many from using the lane at peak times to keep the average speed at least 45mph or higher.
Because the tolls could be raised to $100s of dollars for one trip in the predictable flow lane, none of the fates of general purpose lanes ever have to happen. Authorities have complete control of how many users the road has, and that remains in the future. You all vilify car travel in this great big country of ours. Seattle has congestion because of natural features and not enough freeways were evet built to begin with, like Atlanta whose road system was built for 2,5 million people not 7 million who must cope with them today.

Mark Foutch

Why do articles like these never include intercity passenger rail as an alternate to driving or, in come cases, flying? Have a look at the All Aboard Washington website to learn about the State-adopted goals in the 30 year passenger rail plan and the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving those goals. Thanks!

Stephen Fesler

In the piece, we did not get into the weeds about specific projects to build. This wasn’t some sort of oversight. This piece was meant to be high level principles on transportation spending. The piece does advocate for more transit, which clearly intercity passenger rail would fall under. And we have consistently covered news and advocated for conventional and high-speed intercity passenger rail. So perhaps you’ve missed these articles in the past.

Last edited 7 months ago by Stephen Fesler
Mark Foutch

Thanks!