TESTIMONY OF THE HONORABLE RON SIMS,
EXECUTIVE OF KING COUNTY, WASHINGTON
SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
Tuesday, March 19, 2002
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Smith, and Members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to testify before you today regarding new ideas for the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21.) Your reauthorization of these vital transportation funds can better help communities address the public’s need for greater mobility in the face of growing congestion that threatens the quality of life in our metropolitan areas.
I applaud the dramatic changes Congress has instituted in the last two surface transportation reauthorization bills, particularly those that have helped address congestion problems in America’s major urban areas. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) strengthened the role of metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and encouraged the use of federal-aid highway monies for high-occupancy vehicle lanes, transit systems and other projects designed to meet congestion problems. TEA-21 established “firewalls” that ensured that the funds collected from the public for transportation purposes will be spent on transportation, restoring trust to the Highway Trust Fund, and freeing up billions of dollars for congestion relief programs.
I believe that next year’s reauthorization bill should take what I view to be an essential next step. By targeting transportation investments into metropolitan areas that are competing in the global economy, we can help these areas and our country retain our competitive edge. If we don't, companies will leave our area, and, in some cases, our country. Infrastructure investment in our metropolitan areas will not only bring much needed congestion relief, it will help secure the stability and health of these metropolitan areas that are the economic engines of this country.
Despite the efforts of programs like TEA-21, we must do more to ensure congestion relief infrastructure investments are targeted to key major metropolitan areas. Clogged roadways delay people, goods and services from moving freely to their destinations. Metropolitan congestion relief will have a tremendous impact on the quality of life for business, industry and the residents. More and more people are living in urban areas. Through very successful Smart Growth strategies aimed at managing growth in urban areas, many cities are seeing a revitalization of their cores as people move back into cities. In King County, we know that over 50% of all daily trips are still by single-occupancy vehicles despite great strides being made in increasing transit trips and carpool rides. Our long-term goal is to get people to live, work and shop in the same community - to use public transportation and to cut down on driving alone. But it is imperative we create and invest in the infrastructure to help make this goal a reality.
The viability of urban areas is increasingly dependent on reliable transportation networks of all kinds -- from major freeways to regional arterial networks and public transportation, inter-city rail, and all other efforts aimed at congestion relief. And we’re moving in the right direction. In 2002, transit ridership in King County grew by almost four percent, boarding 100 million riders given on buses, trolleys, and streetcar. We have dozens of programs aimed at getting more people out of their cars, like our Transit Oriented Development projects that combine housing and local retail with a transit station or a park-and-ride lot to locate people and services near transit to discourage auto use. We are creating better pedestrian linkages to bus service. Further, ongoing national health studies show that some urban development, especially sprawl, limits physical activity causing obesity and related illnesses. We have an obligation to give our citizens the transportation choices they need to make their lives easier and more healthful.
Therefore, included in whatever is done with the reauthorization of TEA-21, metropolitan congestion relief is a must. A successful comprehensive plan will include transportation infrastructure that helps our metropolitan areas to thrive as both economic engines and as wonderful places to live.
Economic Importance of the Major Metropolitan Areas
As the United States economy grew and prospered in recent years, we have witnessed significant growth in major metropolitan areas and business centers across our nation. The major metropolitan areas are significant major contributors to the economic viability of our nation as a whole. The 20 most congested metropolitan areas in the United States together have more than one-third of the entire economy of the nation. Using 1999 payroll data as an indicator for economic activity (payroll is the largest share of GDP), these top 20 metropolitan areas had a combined payroll total of more than $1.7 trillion – 37% of the total national payroll of $4.6 trillion. Further, these 20 metropolitan areas contain nearly 50% of the population and economic activity of the total metropolitan areas combined.
Let me talk about our economy and its importance to the region, state and Pacific Northwest. Based on 2000 economic data, this metropolitan area ranked as the nation’s 13th largest metropolitan economy, generating about $115 billion in economic output. Compared to nations of the world during the same period, the area out-produced Greece or Venezuela and nearly out-produced Finland. Further, King County represents 43% of Washington State jobs and 55% of the state’s dollar payroll.
This region is also a port community, largely dependent on the increasing pace of global trade. International trade supports one of every three jobs in Washington State, and we serve as an important export and import gateway for the northern tier of states. I want to thank this Committee for including the National Borders and Trade Corridors program in the last authorization bill. We are using funds from that program in our region to help construct a series of railroad grade separation projects that are increasingly important as mile long container trains move slowly off the docks at the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma.
Costs of Congestion
The total cost of traffic congestion in the metropolitan areas studied by the Texas Transportation Institute amounts to almost $74 billion. TTI has calculated that significant amounts of fuel are wasted as a result of congestion, noting that drivers stuck in traffic used more than six billion gallons of fuel in 1996.
Now, congestion remains the primary threat to the long-term health of the economies of many different regions. Traffic congestion deeply affects our nation's ability to move goods and services. Corporations and businesses in these congested areas have experienced significant financial losses as a result of increased traffic. The Boeing Corporation, the nation's number one exporter, estimates that while they move the same amount of freight up and down the Puget Sound region as they did five years ago, it takes them 22,000 more payroll hours to do it. Boeing shocked our region last year when they announced they were moving their corporate headquarters, partly because of our State's failure to keep up on transportation spending. The added costs associated with traffic congestion are causing many businesses to search for other, less congested areas, just to meet their freight mobility needs.
Infrastructure Investment Has Not Kept Pace with Growth
Decaying and outdated roads are having a severe impact on all aspects of residents' daily lives, from how they get to work to when they return home to spend time with family and friends. Road rage and other congestion- related ills are affecting the quality of life for many Americans.
As this committee knows, the overall level of public investment in transportation has declined from a peak in the 1960's to levels that now threaten the economic vitality and the livability of our communities. Recent polls taken in the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, for example, consistently indicate that solving congestion is the highest policy priority of residents. They consistently rank transportation congestion as their number one problem, far ahead of concerns over crime, education, taxes, or the environment.
The Washington Legislature has struggled, as many other state legislatures have, to craft statewide and regional packages to fund much-needed transportation projects. The Washington State Legislature voted late last week to increase statewide spending for transportation. This will be financed through a combination of gas tax, truck weight fee, and vehicle sales tax increases. A regional transportation finance mechanism was also authorized. Our transportation problems can only be addressed through bold cooperative actions, not just at the state level, but at all levels of government.
Development Patterns Have Contributed to Congestion
Urban sprawl has been a major contributor to our growing traffic congestion problems. From 1970-1990, population in the Seattle metropolitan area grew by 38% while the development of land increased by 87%. This represents a doubling of land needed for each person over the previous period. Related to this statistic, there has been a 30% drop in residential densities since 1970 while we have seen new jobs locate in sprawling low-density employment centers.
Communities comprised of housing exclusively combined with low-density development randomly scattered around a region, have created land use patterns that are difficult for transportation to serve. People have no choice but to drive everywhere. Alternate forms of transportation such as public transit, walking, bicycling, carpooling don’t work as well in a pattern of sprawl development because travel trips are too long and too scattered. It is more difficult for government to respond to the growing needs created by these inefficient development patterns. Housing, jobs and shopping become more distant from each other, resulting in greater vehicle miles traveled.
I challenge us to look for ways to meet our current transportation needs, while at the same time, we support efforts to steer new development into Smart Growth land use patterns. New funding plays an important role in fixing transportation problems in our major metropolitan areas. We need to leverage these new resources by making changes to the development patterns the transportation system serves to get the most efficient use of our money.
Smart Growth is Part of the Solution
Smart Growth is a major factor in reversing the trends resulting from typical development patterns and traffic congestion. Smart Growth provides for “common sense” development by encouraging growth where facilities and services already exist, bringing jobs and housing closer, and limiting development into farm lands and low density rural areas. I support the testimony of Don Chen, Executive Director of Smart Growth America, who spoke to your committee two weeks ago about the role the Federal government can play in supporting Smart Growth policies and actions by local governments. The reauthorization of TEA-21 can become a mechanism to support Smart Growth initiatives. This committee can help local governments solve transportation problems by encouraging Smart Growth policies leading to fewer cars on the road.
In King County, we’ve been working diligently to make Smart Growth work. In 2000, only 4% of all of our new housing units went into our designated Rural Area. We’re revitalizing our older urban areas as evidenced by the nearly 10% growth in the City of Seattle from 1990-2000. Growth in the centers of the close-in suburbs is also rising. Over the last ten years, the population in King County grew by 15% and the City of Seattle grew by 9%. This data demonstrates a reverse in the declining growth trend in the City of Seattle during previous decades. This is not just happening in Seattle, but in other metropolitan areas as well. Future transportation investments need to support these recent trends.
The viability of our urban areas is increasingly dependent on reliable transportation networks. If we are successful in creating more Smart Growth communities, where people use their cars less, then we are actually preserving road capacity for those that really need it – like for the movement of freight. A clear example of how land use and transportation are being used together is in a Transit Oriented Development Project, which typically combines housing and local retail with a transit station or a park-and-ride lot.
We need to create better pedestrian linkages to bus service, encourage greater densities and mixed-use developments around transit centers, and simply provide connections within our communities. Ongoing studies are demonstrating that many forms of urban development, especially sprawl, can work against physical activity such as walking and other forms of exercising. We have an obligation to give our citizens the transportation choices they need to make their lives easier and more healthful.
Increases in Vehicle Miles Traveled
People drive more and they own more cars. In King County, there are more registered vehicles than there are registered drivers for those vehicles. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has also increased, so traffic congestion continues to worsen.
In the Seattle region, from 1980 to 1990, VMT increased nearly three times faster than population and employment growth. However, from 1990 to 2000, VMT grew at approximately the same pace as population and employment. Although the trend is in the right direction, the transportation system needs to catch-up from the rapid growth in VMT from the past 20 years. Also, through strategic investments, we can ensure that this trend continues and does not revert back to the rapid rise of the 80’s.
While traffic congestion is the most evident sign of increasing VMT, other important impacts are significant to our quality of life. Increasing VMTs correlate to worsening air quality and higher energy consumption rates.
Increase in Transit Ridership
As we look to solutions to address our traffic congestion problems, we need to keep in mind that there is no quick fix to eliminate congestion. Instead, we will need broad solutions to address different facets of congestion and to give metropolitan areas the flexibility and choices they need.
Often, we turn first to adding highway lanes. While this is an important part of the solution, alone it will not alleviate the traffic congestion problems we currently face. Additional congestion-fighting tools include improved transit service and other actions.
In King County, we have one of the best transit operations in the nation. Last year we exceeded 100 million annual riders for the first time. Transit’s share of daily travel is also going up. In the Seattle Metropolitan Area, commute trips on public transportation, as a percentage of all work trips, has increased from 6.3% in 1990 to 7.1% in 2000. I believe strategic investments will help us maintain this trend in transit ridership. However, we know that increasing traffic congestion is having a negative effect on our ability to operate transit efficiently. More congestion makes if harder for buses to maintain schedules, leading to more buses providing the same level of service. Clearly, this is not a very efficient way to operate.
Transit can and should be one of the key tools to address traffic congestion, especially in metropolitan areas and centers where there are concentrations of people and jobs. To do this, we need to make sure transit becomes a viable alternative. Transit can compete with the car for commute trips if appropriate funding and operating incentives are provided. Many inter-city rail routes, for example, have proven this and incredible progress in ridership has been realized.
Revenue Sharing Formulas May Not Be the Answer
Almost all highway assistance is provided to states based on a formula. Exceptions include the recently enacted trade corridor/border crossing, intelligent transportation system deployment, and transportation community and system preservation programs that are allocated on a national discretionary basis each year. Other exceptions are the regional Surface Transportation Program and Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality programs where project selection is the responsibility of metropolitan planning organizations. About two-thirds of transit assistance is provided to transit operators on a formula basis through their metropolitan planning organizations. About one-third is allocated on a national discretionary basis annually to start new and bus capital projects. Federal assistance must be directed toward solving problems in proportion to their severity.
Encourage and Promote Flexible Funding Approaches
Most federal transportation programs pay for specific solutions; e.g., new highway lanes or transit new starts, rather than the best overall transportation solution for a given corridor. While ISTEA and TEA-21 included flexible funding programs like the surface transportation program and Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality programs with broad program eligibility, most federal assistance is still provided on a mode-specific basis to existing road and transit providers. Furthermore in the first four years of the CMAQ program, it has managed a mere 57% obligation rate. This rate is troubling and is the worst of any of the core programs in T-21 suggesting that even when Congress provides tools to the states for metropolitan needs it has not merited enough attention to address the problem.
It is my belief that addressing congestion in the most strategic and effective way demands a comprehensive approach encompassing everything from improving operations to managing growth. Federal, state and local governments can no longer afford to view investments in metropolitan infrastructure in separate, distinct elements particularly when transportation infrastructure at the metropolitan level is far more complex and inter-modal then at the state or federal levels. The very nature of a global economy and the need for our nation’s metropolitan economies to stand up against their competitors around the world by definition necessitates comprehensive, strategic planning and ultimately targeted investments. Funding must be predicated on the notion that metropolitan governments in partnership with their constituents are most familiar with residential growth patterns, commercial development needs, freight mobility and the many other demands on local metropolitan areas. These demands must be dealt with in a cohesive fashion that allows for optimum flow and efficiency.
Creation of a Metropolitan Transportation System
Mr. Lomax’s research has consistently shown that roadway congestion can be quantified through various research indexes to identify our nation's significant problem areas. According to his research, rush-hour travel in five regions -- Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle-Everett, the Washington DC metro area and Las Vegas -- takes 50 percent more time than non-rush hour travel. Additionally, he indicates that drivers in the largest metropolitan areas spend about half of their driving time stuck in traffic, far more than drivers in medium and smaller sized metropolitan areas. This work of identifying our nation’s significant problem areas must be advanced further.
I believe Congress should take the next step of calling for in the upcoming reauthorization the creation of a metropolitan transportation system that geographically defines the boundaries of metropolitan areas within which federal transportation funds will be targeted. Similar in concept to the federal highway system or interstate systems, planning and investments for major highways, regional arterials, bus and subway routes, local and inter-city rail, freight corridors, ferries, and other transportation modes such as air travel must be carried out as part of a comprehensive metropolitan transportation system. Congestion relief is of such an urgent and immediate nature, that a step of this magnitude is necessary and warranted. Some of this work has already been accomplished through the work of Metropolitan Planning Organizations. We must find ways of furthering this work and aggressively infusing such metropolitan systems with the kind of strategic resource allocation that is needed.
Creation of a Metropolitan Congestion Program
Finally, I it is time for Congress to create a Metropolitan Congestion Program that would funnel federal dollars directly to the metropolitan transportation system. This Metropolitan Congestion Program should be sized at a minimum equal to the National Highway System Program which this year received nearly five billion dollars under T-21. I acknowledge the need for the next reauthorization bill to be crafted in a way that does not perpetuate a multiplicity of programs and perhaps this metropolitan program would encompass other programs in the current reauthorization bill originally intended to address congestion. However, at the local level, metropolitan organizations and governments in major urbanized areas are suffering from the lack of tools at their discretion. In fact metropolitan sub-allocations under T-21 are smaller as a percentage of total funding as compared to levels under ISTEA.
While land use, permitting and many other functions that involve growth planning, residential and commercial development are primarily the responsibility of these governments we are handcuffed by the lack of balance in matching infrastructure investments to support development planning. Transportation dollars that are funneled ultimately to local areas lack the clarity, transparency and precision in investment decisions that metropolitan governments are most appropriately situated to provide. I strongly advocate that the right and ideal place is in the metropolitan areas.
Over the past several months, I have begun to partner with colleagues around the country to form a metropolitan congestion coalition. The magnitude of these changes require the kind of bold, decisive leadership that our citizens deserve. The purpose of this coalition is to bring together metropolitan elected officials and business leaders in metropolitan areas to address these ideas for the reauthorization of TEA-21. We have to date been successful in our initial discussions around the country because the need is so evident. I have no doubt that you also recognize this need and I am hoping to partner with you during this reauthorization cycle.
I respectfully urge this committee to consider where transportation problems are most severe and the associated socio-economic consequences then to direct available federal assistance to those areas proactively. In metropolitan areas and at all levels of government public resources are scarce. This only emphasizes the importance of greater discretion in funding decisions. We have strong decision-makers in every metropolitan area who are first responders and are on the frontline helping to lead the economic engines of this nation. The depth of this leadership capacity must be further utilized to propose and implement solutions that enhance vitality and energy in these regions. Congestion cannot be allowed to stand in the way.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee, for giving me this opportunity to share with you my views on the reauthorization of the federal surface transportation program.