Our common regional arteries are also our common regional nightmare. A multiple-car accident on Interstate 5 backs up traffic in all directions...

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OUR common regional arteries are also our common regional nightmare. A multiple-car accident on Interstate 5 backs up traffic in all directions on a rainy afternoon at rush hour, so… important meeting dates are canceled or delayed, kids are left at day care, truckers stew in their cabs over penalties for late deliveries. How to fix it?

Expand road capacity at key choke points? Overdue, but expensive and politically challenging. Add more transit and HOV lanes? Also important, but not well-suited to the increasingly suburb-to-suburb, errand-running environment we live in.

These are two reasons why technology is emerging as a short- and long-term answer to dealing with transportation gridlock.

Our region — a worldwide leader in many technology fields — would seem to be ideal for the aggressive and entrepreneurial application of technology to transportation. We have trouble agreeing on regional transportation-investment priorities, but it should be much simpler to agree on ways that technology can help solve our transportation problems.

We are beginning to get it. The Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) and King County, along with Seattle and other cities’ transportation departments, were early leaders in using sensors and signals to manage traffic on our freeway network. Radio traffic reports and travel times rely on the video cameras and under-road car-counting sensors the state transportation department has installed. These sensors enable a “traffic gauge” wireless device to show us which route to take home.

TOM REESE / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Southbound I-5 traffic backs up approaching the Mercer Street exit.

Buses and cars are moving faster on some routes because of computerized traffic signals; some can distinguish between cars and buses, giving buses priority through an intersection. Sound Transit has pioneered a new “smart card” transit pass that allows a seamless transfer between buses and trains. State DOT traffic-management centers dispatch towing and law-enforcement resources to clear roads quickly after accidents.

But much more can be done. Yes, we still need to add lanes, but traffic-operations management is underfunded compared with the payoffs it can yield. The active management of traffic flows, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, should be integral to building and expanding road capacity. We must manage the traffic to avert gridlock.

Technology can provide up-to-date information on traffic, available parking and transit status — delivered constantly to you in your car or at your bus stop through a wireless handheld device that doubles as a cellphone or bus pass. This would let people, when they gather with friends in the evening, stay inside until just before the bus arrives, rather than standing at an unprotected bus stop.

This kind of information requires more variable-message signs, more highway advisory radio reports, and transmitting information safely to drivers and transit riders in ways that inform but do not distract.

Private companies, including Microsoft, along with the auto industry and government agencies are hard at work, but more urgency is needed. That’s because there is insufficient understanding — and thus insufficient encouragement and investment — from public and private institutions. The state’s 2003 gas-tax increase is making a significant dent in the construction backlog, but it does not sufficiently fund transportation technology.

One practical, achievable vision is installing sensor systems on roads and railways and in vehicles to let travelers know what’s ahead all the time, such as a backup on a freeway or a train approaching a grade crossing. Drivers of heavy trucks on steep curves (think I-90/I-5 interchange) could be warned when their truck is going too fast and is in danger of tipping over, allowing corrective action before a disaster.

Another exciting new technology in development, variable cruise control, will brake your car if you are too close to the vehicle in front of you; it also will warn you with a beep about nearby cars if you have a tendency (like my teenage daughter) to change lanes first and ask questions later. Imagine the opportunities to calm the beast behind road rage.

Do we have to choose between technology and expansion of road and transit capacity? No, because they support each other.

What about technology over the longer term? Improved fuel efficiency and alternative fuels are eroding the effectiveness of the gas tax for funding our highway systems. We can begin to supplement — and eventually replace — the gas tax by using another technology-based congestion beater: time- and place-adjusted metering of road usage by the mile, throughout the state.

The Internal Revenue Service allows a 40-cents-per-mile reimbursement for the business use of your car. A charge of about 8 cents per mile for vehicles traveling in Puget Sound would fund the region’s highway program, but a proper system would vary the charge by location and time of day. With the cost of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Highway 520 bridge, Interstate 405 and transit projects approaching $30 billion, we have to be more creative.

The Puget Sound Regional Council will soon test technology that can track the miles motorists have driven and bill them at peak- and non-peak-hour rates.

The key to getting the best out of technology for addressing our transportation challenges is for transportation leaders to articulate a vision of the possibilities for our region — one of the most wired, technologically savvy areas of our nation.


Bruce Agnew is the policy director of the Cascadia Center for Transportation and Regional Development of Discovery Institute in Seattle. The “Breaking Gridlock with Technology” conference, co-hosted by the Cascadia Center and Microsoft, will be held Thursday and Friday at the Microsoft campus in Redmond (www.cascadiaproject.org, or 206-292-0401, ext. 153).