Over the past week or so, there’s been a big to-do about greater Seattle’s transportation measure—affectionately known as the “RTID”—that’s set to appear on the November ballot. The measure would spend more than $17 billion on new roads, road maintenance, and rail transit, mostly through an increase in sales and vehicle taxes.
To many people’s surprise, King County Executive Ron Sims (a former board chair of Sound Transit) came out against the RTID last week in an op-ed published in the Seattle Times. A chief reason for his opposition: global warming. Said Sims:
Tragically, this plan continues the national policy of ignoring our impacts upon global warming. In a region known for our leadership efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, this plan will actually boost harmful carbon emissions. [Emphasis added.]
On this latter claim, I think that Executive Sims could well be correct.
We recently took a look at the greenhouse gas implications of building a new lane-mile of highway in a congested urban area. Our conclusion—which you can read in full here (pdf link)—is that every extra one-mile stretch of lane added to a congested highway will increase climate-warming CO2 emissions more than 100,000 tons over 50 years. Those emissions are broken out as follows:
- Road construction and maintenance: 3,500 tons
- Net congestion relief: -7,000 tons [that’s negative, folks]
- Additional traffic on the roadway: 90,000 tons
- Additional traffic off the roadway: 30,000 – 100,000 tons
- TOTAL: 116,500 – 186,500 tons
For a variety of reasons (which the full memo (pdf, nine pages) discusses in greater depth) these are conservative estimates. And to put all this in context: CO2 emissions in the US currently average about 20 tons per person per year. So 100,000 tons per lane-mile is a fair bit of CO2—not as much as a coal-fired power plant, but worth being concerned about. As I understand the package, the RTID will add over 150 lane-miles of general purpose roadways—which, over the long term, could boost CO2 emissions by some 15 million tons. (Yoiks.)
Obviously, this isn’t a full analysis of the RTID. It doesn’t look at the greenhouse gas impacts of building or operating a train or HOV/HOT lanes, nor of the land-use impacts of more compact development that light rail may help foster. Still, Executive Sims may be on to something; if our estimates are even close to the mark, the greenhouse gas impacts of building new roads are pretty substantial.
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The relationship between road building and CO2 emissions has relevance far beyond this year’s RTID debate. British Columbia is considering a massive roadway expansion in greater Vancouver, called the Gateway Program, which includes a controversial twinning of the Port Mann Bridge. And major road widening proposals occasionally rear their heads throughout Cascadia and beyond.
To me, the most curious thing is that some supporters of this sort of road expansion try to claim the environmental high-ground: adding lanes to crowded highways, they claim, will relieve congestion, which will reduce overall emissions.
Our analysis shows this claim is bunk. Sure, congestion relief may help in the short term—say, 5 to 10 years. (Even then, it’s pretty slim stuff.) But over the long term, traffic in crowded urban areas tends to fill all available road space. And when roads fill up, we’ll just have an extra highway lane filled with idling traffic—and the extra emissions from new traffic positively dwarf any temporary decline in emissions from congestion relief.
Just to be clear: Sightline isn’t taking a position on the RTID as a whole. There are a lot of complicated tradeoffs that we just haven’t looked at—and that, frankly, we don’t have time to look at.
For example, the RTID financing scheme, relying heavily on a sales tax increase, falls most heavily on working families. And that would make our tax system—already the most regressive in the US (pdf link)—even less fair. But building roads and trains can create high-wage jobs for people who don’t have college degrees. The overall economic equity impacts are hard to gauge, without an in-depth look at the regional economy.
Just so, the long term impacts on land use are hard to judge. Building light rail could foster compact land use, and folks in compact neighborhoods tend to drive less. But this will depend in large measure on what happens to the land surrounding each rail stop: will it be up-zoned and surrounded by complete, compact communities? Or will it become parking lots and kiss-and-ride stations surrounded by sprawl-as-usual? Plus, even if trains do foster compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, will that offset the car-dependent development made possible by the new highway capacity? (After all, RTID adds more than twice as many lane-miles of roads as of transit.)
And finally—if the state of Washington (or the US as a whole) does adopt a comprehensive, aggressive greenhouse gas cap, the issue of CO2 from road building is more or less moot. A cap would force overall carbon emissions down, regardless of how many new lanes of highway are built. Sure, highway building could make greenhouse compliance more expensive. But it won’t put it out of reach. That said: who knows how the politics of global warming will play out? We could wind up with no cap, or a phony cap that excludes transportation fuels. If so, extra roads could become a real problem.
Sure I have some hunches about how these sorts of issues would play out. But hunches shouldn’t substitute for facts. Before Sightline took a position on the RTID overall, we’d want good, reasoned answers to many of these questions—answers that we, regrettably, don’t have time for.
Still, one thing is clear: building highways for the sake of “congestion relief” will increase CO2 emissions from highways. And now we have some numbers to back this up.
Gee, people, if you don’t have time, who does?Just to be clear: Sightline isn’t taking a position on the RTID as a whole. There are a lot of complicated tradeoffs that we just haven’t looked at—and that, frankly, we don’t have time to look at.
Great point. I hope it doesn’t seem like we’re slacking.But we’ve only got a few people on the research staff (2 FTEs, an intern, and occasional pinch-hitting by the ED), and that GHG from lanes analysis took me, oh, about 120-160 hours of work. I wanted to get it right, or close to it, and had a bunch of false starts. Doing the same for the other issues (particularly the land use effects around the train stations) seemed like it would take too much away from our work on climate policy—which, in the end, could moot the GHG impacts of the RTID.
Clark, thanks for shedding light onto this piece of the puzzle. Btw – I’m increasing convinced that our collective fluency to speak and think in “GHG equivalence” terms matters a great deal to our ability to solve climate related dilemmas. We’re incredibly deft at applying a dollar scalar, but not much else. For example, Vicki Robin has been teaching the language of ‘life energy’, Mathis the ecological footprint, HT Odum offered Emergy, but none has yet to compete with monetization. Moreover, monetizing ecological concerns, while far from mature, is already showing its limitations at informing policy in complex field like transportation. This is all to say that I’m keeping my eyes out for emerging alternatives to the dominance of money as a metric in decision making processes. -morgan
Thanks for the hard work, ClarkFor another recent report that complements your work, check out a recent report from the highly respected Urban Land Institute. They found that projected growth in automobile use associated with sprawl will overwhelm fuel efficiency gains, making it impossible to hit the goal of reducing global warming pollution by 80% by 2050.http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/gcindex.htmlTheir key statement about national trends:[The report warns] that if sprawling development continues to fuel growth in driving, the projected 59 percent increase in the total miles driven between 2005 and 2030 will overwhelm expected gains from vehicle efficiency and low-carbon fuels. Even if the most stringent fuel-efficiency proposals under consideration are enacted, notes co-author Steve Winkelman, “vehicle emissions still would be 40 percent above 1990 levels in 2030—entirely off-track from reductions of 60-80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 required for climate protection.”The Puget Sound Regional Council predicts that our region will see a 45% increase in vehicle miles traveled by 2030. Given the findings by you and by ULI, I think readers and policy makers should have considerable concern about the ability of climate policy to undo bad transportation and land use decisions. Again, thank you for your hard work, and as always, insightful writing and analysis.
Clark-I appreciate the hard work. Noboby doubts that this kind of work is very time-consuming. But if you’ve decided to do an assessment of the single-most important piece of transportation legislation in the state this year, I’d propose that you spend the first 10 hours figuring out how to triage the work. The problem? You looked at the worst polluting parts of Prop 1—new roads—without assessing the most eco-friendly parts of the proposal—50 miles of new light rail. A thoughtful thinker might read your analysis and say, “Well, now I’m against Prop 1.” But as you say, you’re not prepared to take a position on the whole package. There just isn’t enough information.For me, I am a political realist. We’ve voted for rail-only packages many times in the past, and they usually failed. We need a compromise to get a comprehensive light rail system in place. Here it is. We can take the moral-eco-high ground, oppose this measure, and get no progress on transit. Your analysis should also model that. What happens if projected population increase continues to use our current system? More and more CO2 and other uglies for the next 50 years.
But, SouthSeattle, we didn’t “decide to do an assessment of the single-most important piece of transportation legislation in the state this year.” We decided to analyze a particular, recurring argument about transportation proposals that come up across the Northwest all the time. We’ve been hearing this argument for years and with increasing frequency of late. The RTID is the biggest current controversy in Washington State, where proponents are claiming that congestion relief through roadway expansion is a climate plus. But BC’s roads-only Pacific Gateway project is just as much on our minds, and proponents there have consistently made this argument.Furthermore, countless other highway expansion proposals will come up in the months and years ahead. We wanted to do a solid analysis of the question, to make a durable contribution to the debate. That’s what we did.You’re right that the rail transit investments included in RTID may reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to compensate for the roads impacts. Campaigners on both sides of the issue—including close friends of Sightline—now have enough information about the roads side of the equation (thanks to Clark) to do their numbers and make their cases. I wish we had the resources to do that analysis, but we do not.Still, plenty of others are well qualified to analyze the issue. I hope they will.
Personally I really appreciate this analysis.I am the person who says “Well, now I’m against Prop 1”. I had come to believe (as many writers assume) that we must add trip capacity or congestion will cause a massive increase in pollution. I feel rather deceived actually.Transit is not a panacea. Sound Transit’s own web page says public transportation produces “about half as much carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) per passenger mile, as private vehicles”.http://www.soundtransit.org/x6424.xmlThis is not likely to compensate for the damage caused by building new freeways. We must stop moving backward before we can move forward.
I applaud Clark’s work and recognize the piece-of-the-puzzle approach taken to this sorely needed analysis. Arguments need credible details to be responsible and effective. This effort should objectively support discussion across the region, a role Sightline has secured. Thank you!SouthSeattle’s second paragraph captures the frustration in this current situation, the decision being faced in November. The Sierra Club’s odd position and Executive Ron Sims’ contorted logics and spectacular timing are being publicly exploited by the opponents of light rail. Never did I expect to hear radio ads using the Sierra Club in the way that is happening now.Everyone accepts, all sides agree, that we are going to have more people around here in the near future. More people means more trips, more support required, more infrastructure, more housing, more resupply, the need for more jobs,… simply “more”.The only way to get from our society’s current state to a tolerable future is to compromise in such a way that useful and needed projects get started now and less helpful activity is restrained or steered properly. All of these projects become the good bones of a system that can be altered and expanded as public opinion and political will adjust to the future situation. It takes significant time to build a rail system.Our three-county area honestly needs a rail system, …as well as improved roadways to enable support of the yet-to-arrive people who will use that rail system.
Just to chime in about SouthSeattle’s point—When I was doing this work, I was plagued with the fear that, given the current political debate, working on this project could do light rail an injustice, because I’d be focusing on the bad of the roads in RTID without the good of the rail. So I spent a bit of time trying to figure out how light rail would fit into the picture. (That was one of my false starts.)It turns out, of course, that it’s super complicated. Building, maintaining, and operating light rail releases CO2. A full light rail train is way more efficient than cars; but empty light rail is less efficient. Pulling riders from buses doesn’t reduce CO2, if the buses still run. Pulling riders from cars does reduce CO2—until the roads fill up again. And so on.Playing around with this transportation-specific data, I didn’t see a huge, clear GHG benefit from light rail. Maybe some, but roads weighed more heavily. Still, the uncertainties were way bigger than I was comfortable with—and I’d need a bona fide transportation model for the region to figure it all out.Light rail, however, could really be a boon for ghgs if it fosters compact neighborhoods—where people drive less, and (possibly) live in smaller spaces in multifamily housing. That cuts back on heating & lighting energy. I figured that if every ST2 rail stop was quickly surrounded by about a square mile of dense development—like the denser parts of Capitol Hill—then the emissions reductions from denser land use patterns *could* fully offset the increases in emissions from roads. If we’re really lucky, it could more than offset it. But it’s just not clear that that’s what’s going to happen. A quick (and I mean quick!) lit review of the effect of trains on land use patterns suggested that the effects of trains on land use can be real, but that a lot depends on other political, zoning, economic, and govt. investment factors. Around the one ST2 light rail stop I’m most familiar with, Roosevelt, most of the land that would have to be filled with dense development is currently a fairly well-off single family neighborhood. There’s some low-density commercial on the major arterials, and a few apartment buildings already. So there’s *some* good potential for infill. But I have a hard time believing that those neighborhoods will fill in as quickly as exurban land will spread out—ie., believing that, for this stop at least, the land use patterns would evolve as they’d need to to give fuel efficiency the boost that it needs.Anyway—I do take your point. I just hope that this research has made a contribution that will last beyond the RTID debate.
Thanks Clark, that is a good point that light rail likely has major indirect GHG benefits, beyond reducing the pollution generated per trip(by influencing people toward walkable community facilities rather than driveways and parking lots).
Why do you all insist on calling the fall ballot measure RTID? RTID is the roads portion, period. The package, as you should well know by now, also includes ST2, the 50 miles+ of new light rail and other transit improvements. So please call it what it is—RTID+ST2, or the campaign moniker, Roads & Transit
This conversation has been very insightful. I am still torn, but am leaning toward the political compromise of yes. Once the taxes are in place, and then the price of gas sprints to $4 or $5 a gallon, perhaps people will ask RTID to rethink building more roads, and concentrate on transit. Probably just more pie-in-the-sky liberal thinking on my part, given our failure to get this right in 1968, when we could have put in place a regional transit system with Senators Magnuson and Jackson able to bring Federal dollars. I still believe we need to crank up work on ride-sharing and working from home and free ourselves from the notion that driving a car by oneself is somehow the ultimate in pleasure and freedom. This is what we are doing with the “Undriving Ballard” campaign in our corner of Seattle.
I don’t see how bumper to bumper traffic moving at 5mph will produce less emission then free flowing traffic?Also, Light Rail should go over or under existing roads; light rail should never cross traffic. Crossing roads cause more emission from idling autos which are slowed down from unnecessarily waiting.