Gridlock? Put tolls on the HOV lanes

Some problems are inherently difficult, but others are rather easy once you change your perspective. A famous example of the latter concerns celestial mechanics. As long as people believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, figuring out the movement of the heavenly bodies was almost impossible. But once the sun was put in the central position, things readily fell into place.

On a more mundane level, the same is true of traffic congestion, which essentially is a mismatch between supply and demand. This isn't a difficult problem. It only seems so because we are thinking about it backwards.

The lesson of WPPSS

It might be helpful to consider a somewhat analogous problem, namely that of electrical power. Everybody knows something about the WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply System) story. In the 1970s, we were running out of electricity, so we decided to build a fleet of large nuclear plants to meet the seemingly inexorable demand.

But enormous cost overruns ensued and the utilities picking up the tab, facing bankruptcy, eventually bailed out. In the aftermath of the largest municipal bond default in the nation's history, two things happened.

First, because many of the bond obligations still had to be met, electricity got a lot more expensive. Faced with these higher costs, consumers cut down on their usage.

Second, we decided to try a novel approach to this issue, that of so-called "least-cost" planning. This works on the old principle of "a penny saved is a penny earned." If it is more cost-effective to wrap water heaters than to generate the equivalent amount of power, then wrap 'em.

However, although we eventually got smart, WPPSS was still a debacle that continues to burden us with billions of dollars in debt payments. In retrospect, what the region should have done is first raise electricity prices and then purchase additional least-cost capacity with the revenues. Note the sequence: raise prices first, make investments second.

On the other hand, if we had approached electricity the same way we are currently approaching transportation, what we would have done is to raise general taxes to build new nuclear plants, and then give the electricity away — for free!

Hopefully it is obvious that this would have neither constrained demand nor efficiently increased supply. Bad as WPPSS was, this approach would have been even worse.

So why are we approaching transportation in exactly this wrong-headed way? Who knows? Perhaps it's lust for federal dollars. Or perhaps we are as ignorant of economics as our distant ancestors were of astronomy. In any event, there is simply no reasonable prospect that our current approach towards mobility will work.

We face the prospect of a region stuck in something close to gridlock — literally forever. Whatever the benefits of doing so (and the benefits are real), no widening of Interstate 405 or Highway 520, no concentration of population in transit-oriented "urban villages," and certainly no further investments in Sound Transit's Link light-rail system (aka "WPPSS on Wheels"), will provide us the mobility we want and need.

The 'pricing' approach

What will? In a word, "pricing." Pricing primarily means tolls on some, or even all, freeway lanes. It is often said that there is no "silver bullet" in transportation. But switching a fundamental paradigm often is just such a piece of ammunition.

Once we understood that the Earth goes around the sun, things got a whole lot easier. Once we understand that the way to balance supply with demand is by price (which some readers may remember from introductory economics), we will rather easily make our way out of the transportation thicket.

Tolls, with the proceeds invested in "least-cost" transportation enhancements, are simply the only plausible way to solve our congestion problem. Again, note the sequence: Raise prices first, make investments second. Least-cost investments are whatever give us the "most mobility for the buck," whether that be vanpools, bus rapid transit, monorail, additional toll lanes, or whatever.

If the idea of tolling currently "free" lanes is too politically painful, then we should at least toll new freeway lanes and existing HOV lanes: HOV3s (three-person car pools) go free, others pay a price set just high enough (and changing electronically every 5 or 6 minutes) to keep the lanes in free-flow.

The HOV solution

Why not just "raise the bar" to HOV3 and leave it at that? Because if we don't implement pricing but simply raise the carpool lane requirement to HOV3, these lanes will look practically empty, and there's no reason to let all that capacity "rot on the vine." Building out and pricing the HOV lane system would cost approximately the same as the proposed Link MLK trolley, and these lanes would provide 60 mph transit (and emergency vehicle) mobility throughout the entire three-county metro area 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not a bad start on regional mobility (and yes, federal dollars are available).

"Free" lanes will inevitably descend into ever deeper circles of traffic congestion hell. There's just no way to avoid this. But priced lanes can remain congestion-free for eternity.

If it's any consolation, it was once psychologically too painful to imagine the sun as the center of our planetary neighborhood. We were able to get over it. If we want mobility, we'll get over this one, too. As Galileo showed with a much bigger issue, it's really not that difficult.

Booth Gardner is former governor of Washington; Emory Bundy is the former director of the Bullitt Foundation and before that was director of public affairs at King Broadcasting; Donald Padelford is a Seattle area businessman. They can be reached at