Exploring Tough Topics

We have some tough topics to address between now and 2040: topics that are bigger than any one transportation agency can address.

Below are four tough topics that intersect all six of the legislative transportation goals, and will inform transportation discussions and decisions over the next several years.

Facilitating Trade & Travel Across the Columbia River

+ the future of two bridges

The southbound Columbia River Bridge that connects Vancouver to Portland turns 60 years old in 2018. It is a relatively new span compared to the northbound bridge that connects Portland to Vancouver. That span was 100 years old in 2017. Replacing this vital economic link with new infrastructure is daunting in terms of scope, coordination, environmental mitigation, and cost, but those challenges pale next to the issues we face if this connection is severed.

  • Fierce gridlock characterizes current highway and railroad traffic throughout the day, creating unacceptable impacts on both sides of the Columbia. Seismic failure of one or both bridges would create even more disruption, with impacts that would be felt across the state. This is the only interstate highway serving the nation’s west coast, providing a land-based international trade route from Canada to Mexico. The existing I-205 corridor is incapable of replacing the interstate connectivity for freight and passenger transport.
  • Neither of the two bridges is seismically sound. The river they cross is an essential part of the Snake-Columbia River waterway that supports our economy—collapse of either bridge will imperil critical navigation channels, with statewide economic impacts.
  • Many of the smaller bridges over the Columbia are old and functionally obsolete.

Consequences of the no-action alternative are unacceptable. Despite the challenges, we must begin work to strengthen and improve this vital economic link over the Columbia River.

Limitations on Sea-Tac Airport Capacity

+ the future of our busiest airport

Sea-Tac Airport is Washington’s busiest airport, serving almost 47 million passengers today and transporting 273.5 metric tons of commercial air cargo. Demand for both is growing. Passenger travel is expected to increase to 56 million people by 2027 with similar growth expected in air cargo. A major $2 billion effort is underway to modernize infrastructure and facilities that will increase efficiency and expand airport capacity to meet that demand. Despite these efforts, questions are mounting about the long-term implications for passenger and air cargo travel. Sea-Tac will reach its capacity limits well before 2040, and there isn’t a plan in place that prepares for that eventuality.

Interest is growing in a long-term strategy that looks beyond 2027 to identify near- and long-term actions that ensure the state’s ability to meet future commercial aviation capacity needs. For those familiar with the important economic role commercial aviation plays for a host of state industries—tourism, aerospace, electronics, manufacturing, agriculture, seafood, military—the sense of urgency is mounting. Major airport projects take many years to get approval and many more to complete.

The Joint Transportation Committee is looking at constraints on the state’s air cargo capacity to determine if it’s possible to provide relief for Sea-Tac Airport by expanding the air cargo markets of other regional airports. A long-range aviation study by the Puget Sound Regional Council will provide clarity on what can be done at Sea-Tac to accommodate growth long term, and what must be accommodated in a different way somewhere else.

Reconciling Sea-Tac’s commercial aviation capacity constraints will not be easy or inexpensive, and it will entail complicated discussions about the state’s role in aviation. But, it is an essential consideration in support of statewide economic vitality objectives.

Improving Inter-Regional Public Transportation

+ connecting Washington's communities

Dozens of coordinated, long-distance public transportation routes exist across Washington State connecting people with far-flung destinations. Some of these are associated with rural intercity bus service. Rural intercity bus service provides a critical link in a coordinated statewide network that connects rural residents to national bus services like Greyhound and NW Trailways, and to local transit services, Amtrak train service, commercial airports and aeroporter services, and ferry terminals  In other areas, inter-county connector routes make it possible for people to travel outside their local transit service area to reach distant cities. The inter-regional public transportation services these two types of long-distance transit service represent enable people to access tribal centers, colleges and universities, military bases, hospitals and major medical centers, correctional facilities, and commercial airports. It’s a vital statewide service for older people in rural areas, for those living below the poverty line, and for households without cars.

While it may be a vital service, it’s not a convenient service for the traveling public. Typical trips involve tightly coordinated connections and numerous transfers, and they take a long time. Passengers must navigate different fare payment systems. Transit operating funds are available in two-year increments, undermining efforts to establish a sustainable service that the public comes to recognize as reliable. Recent changes to state grants may extend the funding for these services from two years to four years, which will help alleviate some of the funding uncertainty these agencies and their riders face.

2040 and Beyond recognizes the essential role that inter-regional public transportation plays in connecting Washington’s communities and supports efforts to increase funding for seamless, convenient, and reliable long- distance bus service to all the state’s residents.

Interest is growing in a long-term strategy that looks beyond 2027 to identify near and long-term actions that ensure the state’s ability to meet future commercial aviation capacity needs. For those familiar with the important economic role commercial aviation plays for a host of state industries—tourism, aerospace, electronics, manufacturing, agriculture, seafood, military—the sense of urgency is mounting. Major airport projects take many years to get approval and many more to complete.

The Joint Transportation Committee is looking at constraints on the state’s air cargo capacity to determine if it’s possible to provide relief for Sea-Tac Airport by expanding the air cargo markets of other regional airports. A long-range aviation study by the Puget Sound Regional Council will provide clarity on what can be done at Sea-Tac to accommodate growth long term, and what must be accommodated in a different way somewhere else.

Reconciling Sea-Tac’s commercial aviation capacity constraints will not be easy or inexpensive, and it will entail complicated discussions about the state’s role in aviation. But, it is an essential consideration in support of statewide economic vitality objectives.

Rebuilding & Reinforcing the Puget Sound Ferry System

+ investing in our marine highway

Washington State operates the largest ferry system in the nation and is one of the largest in the world, carrying over 24 million passengers a year. Truly part of a robust, marine highway, the Puget Sound ferry system is the only means of access for 27,000 residents of Vashon Island and the islands of San Juan County, and serves as a vital connection for over 300,000 residents and businesses of the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas and Island County. Ferries are the state’s top tourist attraction.

Puget Sound ferries face the same issues as the rest of the transportation system. Preservation has been deferred for years, with spin-off implications for reliability. Peak period demand exceeds capacity. Several ferry terminals will not withstand an earthquake or tsunami, undermining recovery efforts.

Washington State Ferries (WSF) addresses these challenges in its draft long-range plan, identifying the need for five additional vessels as soon as possible to stabilize the fleet. At least 10 more replacement vessels are needed by 2040. The WSF plan identifies ways to better manage demand with technology and management strategies, however, improving access and meeting growing demand will require more landside investments in terminals, overhead boarding for non- motorized passengers, and park-and-ride facilities that support intermodal activity. It also requires better multimodal connections provided by other partners.

Meanwhile, interest in passenger-only ferry service is growing. King County water taxi service between Seattle, West Seattle, and Vashon Island, and passenger-only ferry service operated by Kitsap Transit between Bremerton and Seattle are examples of alternate service models that other communities point to as alternatives to congested highways or expensive car ferries.

Washington grew up with its Puget Sound ferry system. Parts of that system are aging and constrained, and it’s expensive to maintain and expand. The future of our ferry system—and the critical connections it makes possible— depends on our ability to resolve some of our most perplexing funding challenges.

On the Horizon - Further Considerations

The name of this plan—2040 and Beyond— underscores the reality that there is no hard deadline when “the present” ends and “the future” begins.

Long-range strategic plans such as this must, by necessity, consider the immediate world and what is on the near- term horizon in addition to the long-range perspective far in the future. Some things will take longer to materialize and others will take less time. Strategic policy plans such as this help us to keep the long-term perspective in mind even as we focus on immediate and near-term needs.

Once it would have been naïve to suggest that transportation and the future of mobility would radically transform over the course of 20 years. Today, all indications are that it would be naïve to suggest transportation and mobility in 2040 and Beyond will remain as they are today.

The rise of new mobility options and service providers creates unique opportunities to integrate public and private sector objectives and missions in a coordinated effort to connect more people with more places and opportunities. Of course, care is needed to manage the risks of innovation but the potential rewards of innovation demand our full engagement.

Transformations in the way we pay for transportation and mobility are imminent, though we can’t yet say what the new models will be. The transportation sector has foretold of the demise of traditional revenue sources for two decades or more; the current funding situation is not a surprise.

Thanks to leadership at the legislative, state, regional, and local levels—and an electorate and business community that appreciates the need for a fully functioning, reliable, multimodal transportation system—Washington will be better prepared than most states to make the necessary adjustments and weather the inevitable turmoil that is bound to accompany a major shift in transportation revenues.

Transition to new revenue sources won’t be the only turmoil on the way to the future. We are just beginning to grasp the magnitude of effort needed to prepare our transportation system for the stresses it will have to withstand in the decades ahead. From managing mobility to preserving infrastructure and designing for safety and resiliency, we face unprecedented demands for transportation resources, time, and talent that will be in short supply.