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Rantz: Democrats admit they want you stuck in Washington traffic

Seattle traffic is not fun. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Washington Democrats are no longer hiding their disdain for drivers. They have removed “congestion relief” from their list of transportation goals. That leaves you stuck in Washington traffic. And the lawmakers behind the bills are sending mixed messages.

House Bill 2688 and companion Senate Bill 6398 highlight seven identical transportation goals as the state moves forward on various projects. Ditching the goal of “economic vitality” as the lead, the bills promise more accessibility to “improve affordable access to the places and goods Washington residents, organizations, and businesses need to live, work, study, play and pray.”

In place of offering Washington traffic relief, the bills aim to “enhance the quality of life through transportation investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, water pollution, and toxins, promote energy conservation, and protect lands and waterways.”

In their world, drivers no longer get a pass to pollute the environment. Instead, Democrats aim to accommodate “pollution-free transportation” and “multimodal transportation” projects. That means they’ll keep you stuck in Washington traffic, until you give up your gas-powered car.

Not gonna happen

While lofty, the goals are unattainable in the near-to-distant future and wholly ignore the needs of millions of Washington drivers.

“Instead of continuing to build our roads where individual members come up with projects because there’s a congestion in their district, what we need to be doing is we need to be looking at this more holistically,” House Bill sponsor Rep. Sharon Shewmake (D-Bellingham) testified to the committee (I first saw this issue reported by Mike Lindblom in the Times).

There has long-been this claim, primarily by Democrats, that you can’t build your way out of congestion. This position is, of course, generally incorrect.

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We’ve actively seen, for example, projects to specifically address congestion. But under this new framework, projects like the I-5 JBLM Area Improvements wouldn’t be approached. The I-405 Renton-to-Bellevue widening project definitely wouldn’t go anywhere since it’s expressly “designed to reduce congestion”.

Do voters want to abandon these types of projects? Surely not.

Say one thing, but do another?

While reviewing another story for my radio show, I came across a quote by State Senator Marko Liias (D-Lynnwood). He addressed a possible cut in funding to Sound Transit.

“When I talk to my constituents, they don’t want to be stuck in traffic,” Liias said. “They want light rail to come to us, but they also want their cars to be valued fairly.”

It’s clear that this quote accurately represents his constituents. But why, then, is he cosponsoring the bill that kills congestion as a goal for transportation projects? I asked Liias about the legislation via Twitter. It appears he didn’t realize the language — what it omits and adds — is identical.

Perhaps what’s lost in this discussion is what we mean by congestion relief. Is this all about changed basic definitions to needlessly confuse a simple issue?

“I think of accessibility as embracing the concept of congestion relief and mobility, but thinking about from a people-centered viewpoint,” Liias tweeted. “Congestion relief is really about making sure people can spend more time with their families, not stuck in traffic.”

In a way, his comments don’t really mean anything. It just gives off the impression of meaning something. All transportation projects are “people-centered” because it’s people who are driving, busing, or light-railing it to their destinations.

But he seems to be walking back his reasonable car-centered approach he held in the previous quote. It went from appreciating car owners to shifting his goal to simply making sure people can spend more time out of traffic.

That doesn’t sound like an argument to help drivers, but an argument to expand light rail or buses. And while the arguments have been that it ends up helping traffic congestion get better, it doesn’t. It helps congestion problems from worsening, and only to an extent.

Why does this matter?

It feels like Democrats will tell you they care about congestion relief when a constituent might corner them with a specific question. But when it comes to the underlying framework in developing transportation projects, they ditch “congestion relief” goals all together. Why is that?

I trust Liias when he tells me that he can address our concerns as they debate the two bills. But I don’t think other Democrats want to do that.

The easiest way to say you care about addressing congestion relief is to say it. Right now, they’re choosing to delete it from their agenda. At the same time, agencies must evaluate proposals “relative to the state’s transportation policy goals.” That means, unless congestion relief is explicitly put back into one of the goals, drivers will get shafted.

The legislation makes room for a “equity and environmental justice” carve out for transportation policies. Surely helping drivers find Washington traffic relief can also fit. Unless, regardless of what Liias says, that’s truly not part of their goals.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz on Twitter.

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