NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 30, 2008

Across the country, transportation spending decisions are too often tied to political agendas and the wishes of influential constituencies, not objective measures of public need, such as safety and congestion relief.  Yet, a recent development in Washington State could very well change how policymakers across the country make decisions on transportation policy, says the Heritage Foundation.

As part of a statewide voter initiative, the State Auditor's Office conducted a series of independent performance audits on several major aspects of the state's transportation system.  The audit that focused on congestion relief in the Puget Sound region (the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area) identified elements that could have a far-reaching impact on the state and the nation.  The audit examined the Washington State Department of Transportation's current highway spending and infrastructure utilization, and the costs of recommended improvements over the next 5 years.

The key recommendations were to make traffic congestion relief a primary goal, apply congestion-related benchmarks to all highway spending and reform governance.  The 22 recommendation can be summarized into 8 broad proposals, says Heritage:

  • Commit to congestion reduction as primary goal (along with safety);
  • Assess tools based on their ability to reduce congestion;
  • Add physical capacity to the system;
  • Improve the planning and programming process by emphasizing performance measures and adopting an outcome-based planning process;
  • Encourage high occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes;
  • Better coordinate responsibilities of regional transportation authorities;
  • Improve demand management and opera­tions; and
  • Focus on I-5 through Seattle.

The plan would reduce traffic congestion by 15 percent to 20 percent, save the state $110 million and, more importantly, provide $3 billion in economic benefits to the community through reduced congestion and so forth.  In an era when most state transportation departments seek to do little more than reduce the rate at which traffic congestion worsens, this would be a remarkable outcome, says Heritage.

Source: Michael Ennis, "Reforming State Transportation Policy: Washington State's Efforts to Implement Performance-Based Policies," Heritage Foundation, Backgrounder No. 2189, September 29, 2008.

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