While central Puget Sound voters were debating the merits and then defeating the $18 billion package of roads and other transit projects called Proposition 1 earlier this month, a smaller group of citizens was putting together its own proposals to improve the region’s congested transportation network.
Researchers from the University of Washington directed the Let’s Improve Transportation Challenge as part of a $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation and enlisted 135 residents of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties in an experimental project in online participatory democracy.
The UW researchers believe the process they developed and the results it produced can be used to restart public discussion about solving the region’s transportation woes. They think the process also can be used to support public evaluation of choices about such issues as regional climate change impacts and Puget Sound habitat restoration.
Over four weeks in October and November, the participants gathered online during their spare time to discuss the region’s transportation problems and to fashion solutions and ways to fund them. The end result was an $11.8 billion package of projects that 62 percent of voting participants said they could support.
That proposal included light rail expansion to Northgate, Redmond and the Port of Tacoma; replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a four-lane-plus-transit surface option; a new six-lane state route 520 bridge with transit and HOV lanes; and other major highway projects in east King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. The hypothetical package would be financed by a combination of variable highway and bridge tolls, a regional gas tax, a vehicle license fee and excise tax, an employer excise tax and a commercial parking tax.
The Let’s Improve Transportation Web site was designed to allow participants to brainstorm concerns, map their personal transportation habits, learn about proposed transportation projects and financing options, discuss and evaluate the possible impacts of those projects and options, and create their own package of projects and funding, said Tim Nyerges and Kevin Ramsey, who coordinated the projects. Nyerges is a UW professor of geography and Ramsey is a geography doctoral student.
The Web site was developed by a team of more than 20 researchers in the UW’s departments of geography and civil and environmental engineering, as well as from the Information School and the University of Wyoming and San Diego State University.
The researchers were somewhat constrained in recruiting volunteers for the study because of the presence of Proposition 1 on the November ballot and the possible appearance that the university was using government funds to influence the outcome of the election. Because of this they also could not mention Proposition 1 in written materials or discussions and were limited to several hundred participants. Nyerges believes the experiment could have attracted several thousand people if the transportation initiative hadn’t been on the ballot.
During the four-week experiment participants learned about a long list of proposed transportation projects and options to fund them, and evaluated their potential impacts. The project list included all of those that were part of Proposition 1 with one major addition — various proposals for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. An algorithm developed by the researchers sorted the individual packages proposed by participants into five clusters that had basic similarities. The algorithm then selected one package from each cluster that best represented the proposals of that cluster. All participants then evaluated and discussed each of these five packages before voting on their willingness to support them.
Costs of the final five proposals ranged from $2.4 billion to $12.4 billion. Aside from the $11.8 billion package that 62 percent said they could support, only one other proposal — the most expensive one — gained more than 50 percent support and it just squeaked by with a 51 percent majority.
Nyerges and Ramsey noted that the 115 participants who submitted proposals advocated using a variety of funding mechanisms to pay for road and transit improvements. A strong majority favored partial funding through user fees such as highway tolls (86 percent) and a gas tax (80 percent), while only 39 percent supported a general sales tax increase.
A complete report on the project is available on the Web at www.LetsImproveTransportation.org .