The Avenue

Highways a la Mode

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If a state gas tax is dedicated to “highway purposes,” can you build light rail on Interstate lanes presumably funded with said tax?

We’ll find out in Washington state, where a prominent developer is suing the state over the question.

At issue is whether the Puget Sound regional transportation agency can build light rail on the HOV express lanes of the Interstate 90 floating bridge over Lake Washington (yes, it floats and it sank once) in order to connect the job rich Eastside (Microsoft, Expedia, etc.) with Seattle proper and its scads of commuters both traditional and reverse.

Under an amendment to the Washington State Constitution, state gas taxes can only be used for highways (and the extensive state ferry system).

The developer, Kemper Freeman, argues in his lawsuit that would prohibit the conversion of the I-90 HOV lanes to transit use.

Opponents counter with the fact that no highway capacity is to be eliminated, that federal monies paid for the vast majority of the original project, and that under the agreement to build the lanes they are considered “high capacity” transportation improvements which would include light rail.

The Supreme Court of Washington will hear the case this fall.

However, the bigger question illustrated by the hairpull is that if we are to truly make transportation a means to achieve stated goals (increased throughput of people and goods, reduced carbon emissions, etc.) on a national scale, can we get there with constitutional hurdles like this one--and Washington state is not alone in this regard--that mandate a chosen mode?

Probably not.

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