Vancouver and Seattle are regularly rated among the most environmentally conscious cities in North America. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked them among the top five greenest cities in 2012. The State of Washington has enacted a law setting a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2035 (RCW 70.235.20); British Columbia’s government actually imposed a carbon tax. Clearly, this part of the world has a reputation for progressive environmental leadership. But is it deserved?

Even in Vancouver. Credit: Mark Woodbury, Flickr
Even in Vancouver. Credit: Mark Woodbury, Flickr


If we dig deeper, the reality is that when it comes to transportation policy, there’s a lot of asphalt in this part of Ecotopia. Both Washington State and British Columbia are bent on major highway building binges – while at the same time forcing investments in transit to go through a tortuous and uncertain approval process.

Two developments this week demonstrate that in spite of stated goals and sweeping rhetoric about climate change, when it comes time to lay their money down, policy decisions by state and provincial governments mean that Seattle and Vancouver are roaring ahead with investments in a car-centric, carbon-intensive transportation system.

This week, Washington’s legislature is on track to pass a $16 billion dollar state transportation package that provides $8.8 billion for new highways – plus an additional $2.8 billion to pay off debt on highways already under construction. The bill widens a major highway bridge connecting Seattle to its eastern suburbs, widens the I-5 and I-405 freeways in the Seattle area, builds a “Puget Sound Gateway” and widens roads to the airport. The environmental consequences are clear. As our friends at the Sightline Institute have documented, wider roads translate directly into greater carbon emissions: each additional lane mile of freeway produces an estimated 100,000 tons of carbon over fifty years.

To be sure, the Washington legislation also contains a transit component, but it takes a very different form than the highway spending authorization. The bill authorizes “Sound Transit” – the regional transportation agency for Seattle — to go to local voters and ask for a $15 billion local tax and fee increase over a 15 year period to expand the region’s light rail system. So highway projects get statewide funding without a vote of the people, but transit projects will be funded only from local revenue and only if local voters approve. What’s more, the legislature has ended the sales tax exemption of transit projects, meaning that the transit agency will end up paying some $500 million to the state in sales taxes, which – you guessed it – will end up subsidizing highways. In a final slap to the environment, the bill includes a so-called “poison pill” provision, prohibiting Washington’s Governor from promulgating regulations to lower the carbon content of fuels used in Washington State. As the Seattle Transit blog summarizes it: full speed ahead with highway expansion; transit will have to wait on another vote of the people to tax themselves.

And Seattle. Credit: SounderBruce, Flickr
And Seattle. Credit: SounderBruce, Flickr


A similar scenario is playing out just north of the border in Canada. It was just announced that local voters turned down a proposed increase in the half cent sales tax to fund a proposed 7.5 billion transit package. British Columbia’s provincial government forced local leaders in the Vancouver region to campaign for a tax increase to expand local rail and bus service. Voters rejected this measure by a margin of 62% to 38%. Votes were nearly evenly divided in the city of Vancouver, but the measure lost by a lop-sided margin in the suburbs.  (Detailed election returns are shown at Elections BC.)

As In Washington state, while transit has to be funded locally, and conditional on a referendum, the provincial government is more than happy to pour money into the highway system without a popular vote. On top of that, in BC’s case, they’re going into debt to do so. British Columbia has just finished a new $3 billion dollar crossing of the Fraser River. The new tolled 12-lane Port Mann Bridge replaces an 6-lane 1970s vintage predecessor, but so far carries less traffic. As a result, the new bond-financed bridge is losing about $80 million a year.  The new Golden Ears bridge nearby, facing the same issues, is losing about $45 million.  Both bridges had overly optimistic projections of traffic and toll revenues that haven’t come close to being realized.

And the provincial government is moving to double-down on its costly Fraser River bridge building spree, proposing to replace the existing George Massey highway tunnel 15 miles from the new Port Mann bridge with yet another $3 billion ten-lane bridge. This project would not be subject to popular vote, and will likely be financed by borrowing and tolls, too, running the same risks that have plagued the Province’s other projects.

Finally, as we mentioned earlier this week, Oregon’s own proposed highway expansion package failed after it was shown that the carbon reduction estimates for operational improvements (ramp metering, signal timing and the like) were overstated by a factor of five.

Even in Ecotopia, there’s a profound disconnect between the high-minded rhetoric of public leaders and the way that deals actually get done when it comes to allocating transportation investment. As Seattle Transit Blog editorialized: “Our allegedly climate-focused Governor either doesn’t grasp or doesn’t care about the link between highways and carbon emissions, and therefore fought hard for the highways.”  It’s one thing to take a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at some point in the future, its another to take the hard decisions that will change the path we we’re on.