CSG Transportation Policy Academy Part 8: Charlie Howard, Puget Sound Regional Council

The importance of infrastructure to economic development was the focus of remarks by Charlie Howard at the CSG Transportation Policy Academy in Portland, Oregon on July20th. Howard is Director of Integrated Planning at the Puget Sound Regional Council, a Metropolitan Planning Organization and Regional Transportation Planning Organization that helps to develop policies in regional growth management, transportation and economic development in the Seattle area. He told policy academy attendees how the Seattle region’s burgeoning population is informing what his agency does.

“Our transportation strategy is really geared towards meeting the long-range growth needs and the fact that we’re going to have an additional 1.5 million people in our region plus (the need to) address some of our other environmental challenges,” Howard said.

A well-functioning metropolitan transportation system is key to the success of a region’s economy, Howard believes.

“I use the word metropolitan because we’ve got to recognize it’s not just cities. It’s not just urban. But it’s the urban, suburban and rural areas that together form an economic unit. That’s an important thing because we’re awfully polarized (politically). … But the urban versus rural thing is particularly disturbing because it really shouldn’t be that way. We really recognize that we’re all kind of part of one economy.”

That economic ecosystem extends even further as well.

“We also need well-developed connections from our region to other parts of the country. What’s important (is) we keep our eye on what’s going on in Montana, what’s going on in Illinois. For example, with the CREATE project on rail efficiency in Chicago. All of that’s important to us because when our goods come in at the Port of Tacoma and the Port of Seattle, they get on the train, they go through Montana, they go to Chicago, it’s really important there are connections. … These systems have to connect or we’re not going to have the economy that we want.”

Such connections are also essential in helping the Puget Sound region compete on an international stage, Howard said.

“We know we’re competing for jobs with places like southern California, Denver and other metropolitan regions in the United States. But we’re also competing globally. We’re competing with Singapore. We’re competing with Shanghai and those type of places and we really have to be mindful of what’s going on in those places and how they’re investing.”

Howard said the PSRC’s transportation priorities include system preservation, system efficiency and strategic expansion.

“Preserving our system is obviously a huge and important investment,” he said. “About half of our transportation plan is focused on the need to maintain and preserve and operate that system going forward. System efficiency (is) something that I think has been under focused on but needs to be more focused on. We’re getting to the point of having a lot of smart infrastructure. Automated vehicles. … We’ve got all that stuff going on. … We really need to transition into a smart infrastructure that’s a lot more efficient. I think we’ve got a lot of room to improve the efficiency. And then finally strategic expansion. We’re not going to be able to do all the expansion that is probably needed. So we’ve got to be smart about how to do that (and) recognize that we’ve got to invest strategically in that system. We think strategic investment means supporting jobs and that means supporting freight mobility, supporting our business centers.”

Transportation investments should also take aim at improving safety, supporting the environment and solving transportation problems through prudent land use, Howard said.

The challenge however is finding the right funding solutions to make transportation investment—and the economic development it can bring—possible.

“When we adopted our (long-range) plan in 2010, we took a long range look at what’s happening to our funding system and recognized that the system we have is not sustainable,” he said. “If you take the gas tax yield and forecast that out to the year 2040 … it can’t keep up. Along with the alternative vehicles, more fuel efficient vehicles, it’s not really sustainable. In the short-term, it is where we need to focus and our plan recognizes that and we supported the (Washington) legislature’s attempt to increase the state gas tax to complete what we started with earlier gas tax packages. But the question I’m going to pose here is … If the statewide approach is limited by the lowest common denominator, which often are rural areas that don’t want to increase the gas tax for very good reasons--because they’ve got lower incomes, they have a harder time economically—if a metropolitan region’s future is tied to a statewide approach, is that sustainable or do metropolitan regions need the ability to go forward and invest in their own system?”

Howard said the PSRC has looked at a number of different funding alternatives and found the menu somewhat wanting.

“When you say the gas tax is going to tank in the future, we looked at how to replace that. There aren’t very many good options. … You talk about innovative finance. Every time I’ve seen somebody talk about innovative finance at the national level, it’s different ways of borrowing money. There’s not much innovative about that. It’s a different way of arranging debt instruments so that you can actually invest in the transportation system. The question is we need real increased investment in transportation in order to meet our transportation plan. And so what we did is we took a three decade look and said the first decade, which is the decade we’re in, we’re going to rely on more traditional (revenue) sources. So continuing what we started at the state level with gas tax increases but recognizing that we need to transition to something different. What we posited was that in the second decade, we’d have to have a gas tax substitute and that gas tax substitute probably would be something like (a mileage-based fee). … Our state is looking similarly (to Oregon) at that as an option. … The 2020 to 2030 decade we’ve really got to do something. … Third decade, we recognized that there weren’t that many (revenue) sources and we looked at every single source out there and the yield and potential for it and recognized that we’re probably going to have to have more reliance on tolls. … We also recognized that with system tolling, there’s a certain amount of benefit to air quality and to congestion relief that comes along with the ability to raise money.”

Additional Resources

“Transportation 2040,” Puget Sound Regional Council

“Prosperity Partnership,” Puget Sound Regional Council

“Vision 2040,” Puget Sound Regional Council