Better Traffic Flow Is Possible in Puget Sound Region: State Auditor

Published January 1, 2008

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) and the state legislature need to combat traffic congestion in the Puget Sound region, according to a new performance audit by State Auditor Brian Sonntag. Traffic delays are costing drivers significant time and money, the audit says.

“As of 2007, the phenomenon of an all-day rush hour is beginning to happen across the Puget Sound region,” wrote Sonntag in the audit, which evaluated population growth, the regional economy, freight movement, and state Department of Transportation (DOT) documents.

The congestion audit evaluated the state’s DOT investments and infrastructure policies given current and projected highway usage along several major Puget Sound highways. During morning commutes, the audit found, 42 percent of traffic flow is below 45 miles per hour. The afternoon figure is 48 percent.

Quick Improvements Possible

Overall, the audit found short-term actions by DOT, including better traffic light coordination, better operational efficiency, and increased efforts for regional transit and telecommuting, could reduce traffic delays by 15 to 20 percent. That would save the region some $300 million to $400 million in travel time and vehicle operating costs per year.

Sonntag’s cover letter accompanying the audit states, “[C]ongestion in the Puget Sound is a solvable problem. Many of the solutions can be addressed within the next five years and within the Department’s existing revenues.”

The audit, released October 10, is very critical of the repeated failure of the legislature and executive branch to seriously address road congestion issues over a period of years.

No One in Charge

No person, group, entity, or agency has taken charge of the state’s comprehensive transportation policy, the audit found. It lists 128 government entities that play some role in governing highways along Puget Sound. The audit calls on the legislature to empower either DOT or a single regional authority to allow for a more integrated approach to congestion reduction planning.

The audit also notes the DOT and legislature have not made congestion a key priority for the region.

“A clear commitment to reducing congestion–after meeting safety requirements–would likely shift investment decisions,” the report says.

Auditors said when considering new transportation spending, DOT officials should weigh the project’s ability to combat traffic congestion.

“Transportation investments–highways and transit alike–should be measured, in part, based on how many hours of delay can be reduced for each million dollars of investment,” the audit states.

Relief Not a Priority

Scott Dilley, a policy analyst for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, says one of the main reasons traffic in the area has become worse over the past 10 years is because the legislature has not enforced the law that made congestion relief a priority for the DOT.

“In the 2007 legislative session, lawmakers just gave up and passed a new law directing DOT to focus on broad goals such as ‘maintenance,’ ‘preservation,’ and ‘environment.’ Congestion is simply not in the mix,” Dilley noted.

The audit finds managing congestion in the long term will require adding new lanes of highway and making reduction a primary goal.

“Elected officials have refused to be held accountable for their promises and keep asking for more money,” said Evergreen Freedom Foundation President Bob Williams. “Pouring more revenue into our broken transportation system is like putting gas in a leaky tank. The serious deficiencies in DOT and regional transportation planning must be addressed before state and local officials even think of raising taxes.”

Amber Gunn ([email protected]) is policy analyst at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.

For more information …

Performance audit report of the Washington State Department of Transportation and traffic congestion management in the Puget Sound area, by Auditor Brian Sonntag: