Seattle Living

10 Most Prominent Transportation Initiatives in Puget Sound

Seattle’s growth comes with a price for commuters, which will test our patience and potentially change where and how we live.

By Seattle Mag November 27, 2017


This post is sponsored.

Sponsored by Realogics, Inc.

In 1907, when Seattle annexed Ballard, Ravenna and West Seattle, transportation meant nothing more than sailing routes, roads, bridges and sometimes cow paths. Today, transportation networks are technological systems whose scopes range from international airport instruments to GPS-enabled devices on your dashboard or in your pocket. New applications are transforming every mode and aspect of transportation, integrating it ever more closely with our daily activities. Meanwhile, governments struggle to keep the public infrastructure aligned with this all-encompassing transformation.

The FutureCast Forum notes more than 1,000 new residents are descending upon the Seattle metro area each week and somedays it seems like all of them are on the arterials. As our population grows, so does the demand on our infrastructure, with the needs compounding much more quickly than the solutions.

“Seattle suffers from relatively small town planning, but is digesting global city expansion,” suggests Dean Jones, President and CEO of Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty and a Founding Member of the FutureCast Forum. “Major initiatives like Sound Transit 2 and 3 are certainly a step in the right direction, but it will be another decade before we realize the benefits – until then I fear the traffic will get much worse, and for some, change how and where we live.”

Jones points back to a missed opportunity of Thrust Forward to create a Seattle subway system in the late 1960s and again in the early 1970s when the feds earmarked nearly $900 million in funding. It was voted down locally and instead funded Atlanta’s MARTA system. As a result, Seattle has been dubbed a world-class city for traffic congestion and ranks No. 20 worldwide and No. 10 in the United States, according to research by INTRIX Traffic Scorecard.

“It can be frustrating to see where you are trying to get to, but gridlock and construction disruption constricts the flow – it’s taken me more than an hour to get from Belltown to I-5 before, not to mention trying to get from downtown Seattle to exurban destinations,” adds Jones.  “For some, avoiding the commute means living in the city and giving up the automobile all together – the prevailing trends appearing to grow up and not out.”

Here are some of the signal themes in transportation systems and policy, as surveyed by the FutureCast Forum, highlighting their potential effects on real estate values around Puget Sound. 

1. Sound Transit 2

While all eyes are now on Sound Transit 3, projects planned under Sound Transit 2 are still just getting started.

On September 25, Sound Transit opened two new roundtrip runs of the Sounder between Seattle and Lakewood, bringing the total number of runs both ways to thirteen per weekday. Sound Transit reported that “more than 15,000 riders a day rely on Sounder to let them bypass sitting in traffic getting to and from Seattle.” This compares with the 1,500 to 2,000 vehicles per hour, per lane conveyed by the freeways along the Central Puget Sound corridor.

Last May, Sound Transit received $100 million in federal funds for the Lynnwood Link Extension of the light rail network. Construction will commence next year. Potentially $1.174 billion in grants are agreed for the project to be completed in 2023, extending light rail service from Northgate to Shoreline and points north. In July, the Sound Transit Board adopted the permanent names for the four stations of the Lynnwood Link (from south to north): Shoreline South/145th; Shoreline North/185th; Mountlake Terrace; and Lynnwood City Center. The grant funding will see the Lynnwood Link Extension delivered despite its being already $500 million over budget.

Fares on the Sound Transit system were originally validated by comparison with regional downtown parking fees. In 2006, these averaged $138 per month according to the PSRC, which priced the earliest unlimited-ride PugetPass at $81. As the region has become more congested, Sound Transit rates have been raised as high as $5.75 one-way (on the aforementioned Sounder run from Lakewood to Seattle). For a daily commute, this results in monthly charges of up to $241.

Areas served by Sound Transit can expect to see greater demand for transit-oriented development (TOD) in neighborhoods adjacent to Sound Transit stations. Sound Transit policy is to work “cooperatively with communities to facilitate TOD in areas around Sound Transit facilities, where appropriate.” However, a haltingly progressive transformation of these communities can be expected as delivery of private residential projects, and the planned Sound Transit projects on which they depend, cannot be easily synchronized.

The Takeaway: Areas served by Sound Transit can expect to see greater demand for transit-oriented development (TOD) in neighborhoods adjacent to Sound Transit stations. 
The Impact: The Lynnwood Link is expected to be completed, driving new demand for TOD from Ballard to Lynnwood. TOD calls for high-density development near the Sound Transit stations; but based on the escalating fare structure, this does not necessarily indicate low-income housing as has been associated with areas historically served by buses.  

PICTURED ABOVE: KODA Condominiums is a new 203-unit mid-rise community proposed by Da-Li Development at the corner of 5th Avenue and S. Main Street in the International District of downtown Seattle adjacent to the King Street Station regional transportation hub – the building will feature only 77 parking stalls as analysts believe most residents will prefer to own their home rather than a car.


2. Sound Transit 3


With Sound Transit 2 projects yet to be completed, more projects and financing were approved by Puget Sound voters under Sound Transit 3 last year. Although the yeas won handily, approval was not evenly spread across the region. With most new projects concentrated in northern and eastern King County, Pierce County and south King County residents voted against the $54 billion plans with their new car tab and property taxes. These included voters in Auburn, Federal Way, Kent and Renton. Not coincidentally, these are cities that bear the highest proportional property taxes in King County.

Residents of neighborhoods nearest the facilities to be built were most favorable. Redmond residents approved the plans by three votes to two, and Seattle approved them by seven votes to three. Mayoral candidate Cary Moon has suggested that to expedite projects benefitting Seattle, Sound Transit issue bonds payable to the City under the latter’s own debt capacity, but this would not be allowed under Sound Transit’s debt limits

The new car tab tax raises the rate charged from 0.3 percent to 1.1 percent of vehicle value—still just half of the 2.2 percent rate charged under the old state motor vehicle excise tax in the 1990s. The ST3 property tax increases add $25 to be levied against every $100,000 in home value. King County property taxes have been raised every year since 2013, and by 35 percent in the past four years.

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)

Modern transit systems aren’t built just to connect communities where people already live. Today there is an expectation that these facilities will drive location decisions by transit users. This creates a positive feedback cycle. Transportation investments guide residential, commercial and industrial location decisions. This limits urban sprawl, conserving land and energy consumption. The cycle is complete and begins again with future transportation investments concentrated at nodes along the existing network.

Natural, demand-driven transit-oriented investment (TOD) complements this process, but Sound Transit has formally adopted TOD policies to promote such investment. Sound Transit’s enabling legislation also included a $20 million revolving fund to support affordable housing that meets TOD objectives. However, policies that emphasize diversity and equity in outcomes have been used to promote housing that does not relieve supply constraints, but instead serves demographically targeted groups of users. 

The Takeaway: Facilities will drive location decisions by transit users. This creates a positive feedback cycle. 
The Impact: TOD policies will be most helpful if they aid in countering local limits to development, such as height restrictions, and less helpful if they are employed in a divisive way. The first strategy will enable better and more affordable service to be provided to all communities, and help to keep real estate investment concentrated within the urban growth boundary.

3. The SR 99 Tunnel, Seattle Seawall and Waterfront Promenade

Two catastrophic earthquakes sealed the fate of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct. The collapse of the similarly-designed I-880 in Oakland, California during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake spurred a move to retrofit the viaduct on Seattle’s essential north-south Route 99 corridor. But after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, momentum for complete removal gathered steam. Since then, various other projects have been agglomerated onto the viaduct’s replacement, which now comprises a combination of mammoth earthworks and environmental enhancements that both compare and contrast with Seattle’s historical public projects.

The earthworks prominently include the 1.7-mile SR 99 tunnel under the Denny Regrade and Belltown areas, dug by what was briefly the largest tunnel-borer in history. This project is both by scope and location analogous to Seattle’s monumental reshaping of its landscape by the removal of Denny Hill, another of many such undertakings in the city’s history. The tunnel is scheduled to open to traffic in late 2018, after which the old viaduct will be demolished.

The tunnel is being partly financed by a projected $200 million in toll revenues. Tolls will be collected electronically based on the time of day, as on the SR 520 Bridge. An advisory committee recommended setting initial tolls at $1 all day, adding $1.25 (for a total of $2.25) during peak hours. They concluded that the planned off-peak toll of $1 would divert 38 percent of vehicles onto local streets, and recommended further study by the state Transportation Commission to resolve the diversion challenge.

Pike Place MarketFront, completed in June 2017, realized a vision of a long-endeavored expansion of the famed Pike Place Market, expanding by adding 30,000 square feet of open public space encompassing a public plaza and viewing deck. Image Credit:


Thereafter will come the reconstruction of the Seattle waterfront and the Elliot Bay Seawall, which are designed to correct Seattle’s less environmentally-sensitive legacy. The seawall project will replace the old wall’s 20,000 century-old timber pilings with a new structurally sound and seismically resilient seawall. The improvements, scheduled for completion by fall 2019, will add sea life habitat-enhancing features: cobbled surfaces and shelves along the face of the seawall; a cantilevered sidewalk; light-penetrating surfaces between the sidewalk and the roadway; and habitat benches below.

Concurrent improvements to the ferry terminal at Colman Dock will include a new passenger-only ferry facility on the south side, to be synchronously opened with the tunnel and before the viaduct is demolished in 2019. A new thoroughfare, Elliott Way, will rise along the route of the old viaduct, and the southernmost end of Alaskan Way will be replaced by an expanded Waterfront Park and a new city aquarium. By 2023, an extensive “Overlook Walk” will extend over the street-level traffic from an expanded Pike Place Market, featuring lawns, meadows and “bluffs” planted with quaking aspen.

The Takeaway: The viaduct’s replacement now comprises a combination of mammoth earthworks and environmental enhancements that both compare and contrast with Seattle’s historical public projects. 
The Impact: The combination of projects replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and restoring Seattle’s waterfront will improve the quality of life for downtown residents, raising property values in this already highly desirable area. The risk that the cumulative daily cost of tolls in the region will weigh heavily on lower income households is partly, but not fully, offset by Sound Transit bus and city bicycle-related improvements.

The Market Place Promenade provided additional public space with spectacular views of Elliott Bay, the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier and the Seattle waterfront. Image Credit:


4. Toll Futures on I-405 and Beyond

During its first 18 months of operations with effect from September 2015, I-405 carried nearly 21.2 million trips on its express toll lanes: 53,000 each weekday, of which 36,000 were for tolled use. By the 24th month, toll lanes were required by their enacting legislation to (a) generate revenues that meet operating costs, and (b) allow peak hour speeds of 45 mph in the tolled lanes 90 percent of the time. That did not happen: only 81 percent of vehicles met the target speed, although revenue expectations were achieved. Some state legislators now want the tolls removed, while the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) insists that the tolls stay as long as revenue objectives are met. This disagreement foreshadows how, barring further legislative action, future tolls might be imposed for their revenues and not for their effects on system performance.

The tolling of I-405 is a direct outcome of a study conducted by Cambridge Systematics in 2006 for the Washington State Transportation Commission (“the Commission”), whose findings are consistent with long-held objectives of planners inside WSDOT to compensate for the revenue shortfall from the state motor fuel tax (the “gas tax”).  Up until that time, there was widespread public and interest-group resistance against tolling existing facilities, particularly the interstate highways. The tolls imposed on I-405 with the Legislature’s acquiescence meet the first recommendation of that report: to “convert HOV lanes to HOV/tolled express lanes to optimize performance and maintain free-flowing service for transit, vanpools and carpools.” The Commission is the state’s toll authority, and toll revenues are dedicated under state law to the facilities from which they are collected.

WSDOT and the Commission have understood for decades that the gas tax will not be a sustainable source in the face of electric and other alternatively fueled vehicles. Other Commission reports detail plans for phasing out the gas tax by 2040, replacing it with tolls and mileage taxes. These plans coincide with the proposal of an autonomous vehicle corridor (AVC) on I-5, put forward by Madrona Venture Group in September 2017.

The convergence of tolls and mileage charges with the AVC will convert the highway system from an entrusted asset to a rented asset. When a motorist pays a gas tax at the pump, that fuel is available for use on any road used by that vehicle. The revenues from the tax are appropriated for projects statewide by the elected members of the State Legislature.

In contrast, tolls are fees paid by each driver for use of a specific asset, with the rates to be paid set by the Commission. Conversion of free interstate highways to a toll-based system transforms the state from a trustee of the highway system to a rentier. (The substitution of mileage fees for the gas tax doesn’t avoid the challenge of where those mileage charges were incurred, which is going to provoke many arguments about appropriation of those revenues.) The phase-out of the gas tax will impact municipal roads as well. If authorized by the Legislature, rather than rely on legislative appropriations of mileage fee revenues, local governments may lobby the Commission to impose road charges on their local streets and arterials as a substitute for phased-out state revenue sources and overburdened sales and property tax streams.

In the absence of fuel tax revenues, a toll-funded system, in which revenues can only be applied to the facility that produces them, must be supported by mileage fee revenues that are widely allocated to projects in less-traveled areas. Otherwise, it cannot meet system needs in these areas without raising tolls, fees, or both beyond the users’ ability to pay. Exurban residents will not be able to bear the system’s costs. These facts destine WSDOT and the Commission for conflict with rural residents and their district legislators.

The Takeaway: Conversion of free interstate highways to a toll-based system transforms the state from a trustee of the highway system to a rentier.
The Impact: Due to high traffic volumes, urban and suburban residents can bear the tolls and mileage fees, so that the impact on real estate in populous areas is minimal. However, exurban real estate values will come under increasing pressure if the system is rolled out as planned. More likely, legislators will step in to preserve system-wide funding and indirectly, rural property values. 
5. The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Expansion

International air traffic from Asia is propelling demand for expanded facilities at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Meeting that demand means sustaining the flow of new visitors and business to our region, together with new opportunities for development and sales.

From 2014-15, seven million new passengers traversed Sea-Tac International, for a total of 42 million in the latter year. In 2016, passenger-trips reached 45.7 million. The Port of Seattle projects that the airport will serve 66 million passengers annually by 2034. According to the Port, this will require 35 new aircraft gates to be added to today’s 88; and 16 new international, wide-body capable aircraft gates in addition to the current eleven. 

Improvements to the international gates at the international arrivals facility include a doubling of passenger capacity to 2,600 passengers per hour; a more than doubling of passport check positions and kiosks, from 30 to 80 kiosks; and the addition of three new baggage claim carousels, from four to seven. All of these are aimed at reducing passenger connection time from 90 to 75 minutes during this period of forecast growth.

Connections from Asia are a key channel for air travel demand, much of which originates in mainland China. The most recent nonstop routes to Asia and back include Xiamen Airlines from Shenzhen, inaugurated in October 2016. International carriers are not only bringing tourists to the Puget Sound region, but also foreign students, foreign workers, and business prospects, and through all these, potential home-buyers. Sea-Tac serves not only Seattle, but the entire Pacific Northwest as an international gateway, and adding to its capacity ensures an open door to the Far East.

The Takeaway: Connections from Asia are a key channel for air travel demand, much of which originates in mainland China. 
The Impact: Additional flights and infrastructure allow increased air travel to Seattle by people from various corners of Asia for all sorts of purposes, allowing them to visit or immigrate, work for existing businesses or build new ones. These activities benefit both commercial and residential real estate investment.

6. The Paine Field Commercial Airport Expansion

In May, Alaska Airlines announced that they would be serving Paine Field at Everett with nine flights daily starting in 2018. United Airlines followed suit in August, announcing they likewise would add six flights per day to their hubs in San Francisco and Denver. Chatter on travel blogs alleged that Allegiant Air, currently serving Bellingham, will also add service to Everett.

Alaska’s passengers from Paine Field will be flown by Boeing 737s and narrow-body, twin-engine Embraer 175 jets to destinations in California and Oregon. CEO Brad Tilden anticipates that one in five of Alaska Air’s frequent passengers today flying from Sea-Tac International will prefer to board a plane at Paine Field instead, and is optimistic that more flights will be added.

These flights will be starting small relative to Paine Fields current operations, which serve 300 flights a day to general aviation pilots, as well as Boeing and other aerospace companies. Scott Smith, CEO of Propeller Airports—the company building and managing ground operations at Paine Field—reported that the new terminal would only have two gates, and at most could handle a couple dozen flights.

The cause for this service is the congestion on Interstate 5 that delays surface transportation to Sea-Tac International Airport even before the security-related delays at the airport itself. It is not difficult to imagine the effects of an alternative on the north side for domestic business travelers and others looking for a quick getaway. If a significant number of flights continue to be added at Paine Field, choices among home-buying locations might also be affected. The results would benefit sellers and developers in Skagit and Island Counties, as well as many in Snohomish County. Home-buyers priced out of King County have escalated purchases throughout these communities, so that the market for airport service on this side of Seattle has already arrived.

The Takeaway: If a significant number of flights continue to be added at Paine Field, home-buying choices might also be affected. 
The Impact: Additional flights and infrastructure at Paine Field will make business expansion and employment in Snohomish County even more attractive, driving a business case for further residential development in areas north of the King County border.

The Pinnacle at Alki, a boutique luxury-view condominium, is made up of only 11 units, all with water views. Many residents are flocking to the West Seattle location with easy access to the Seattle Water Taxi, less than a 10-minute walk away. Downtown business people prefer the ease of reliable ferry transportation over the battle that can be found on area highways, bridges and downtown streets. Image Credit: courtesy of Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty


7. Kitsap Transit’s Fast Ferries

The Kitsap Peninsula and Bainbridge Island have been weekend getaways for Puget Sound residents since the days of the Mosquito Fleet more than a century ago. Today, as the Interstate 5 corridor fills up and traffic slows to a crawl, Kitsap County’s allure is rising as a bedroom community for those with sufficiently flexible work schedules, and even as an exurban business location or employment center.

The legacy Washington State Ferries have met these needs well enough into the 21st century, but demand is greater than ever and investment in vessels and service has been constrained by WSF capital and operating budgets. In their long-range plan dated June 2009, WSF forecast ridership demand to rise 37 percent by 2030. Enter Kitsap Transit’s own Fast Ferries, which are funded by a 0.3-percent sales tax within Kitsap Transit’s district, and ultimately $50 million in bonds.

Expectations should be measured based on the respective capacities of these ferry lines. For example, the WSF Bremerton-Seattle ferry run is now served by the MV Chimacum, with a capacity of 1,500 passengers and 144 vehicles, at a speed of 17 knots. In the summer of 2017, Chimacum replaced the MV Sealth, which had accommodated 1,200 passengers and 90 vehicles. The Sealth was in service during 2016, when the Bremerton route conveyed 2.1 million foot passengers.

In comparison, the passenger-only vessel on the Bremerton run of Kitsap Fast Ferries is the Rich Passage 1, a “hydrofoil-assisted” catamaran with a sealed cabin snugly accommodating 118 walk-on passengers. Although tourists may prefer the spacious observation decks aboard the Washington State ferries, the Rich Passage 1 is certainly fast, making round-trips to Seattle and back within 60 to 90 minutes at a speed of 37 knots, compared to an hour for just one leg of this trip by the Chimacum. Yet even at this rate, the Phase Two “Expanded Service” ridership projections on the Bremerton route are for 334,000 trips annually, about one for every eight passenger-trips possible for the Chimacum.

What the fast ferries really deliver is not capacity for new trips, but flexibility for commuters who cannot adjust their schedules to those of the WSF. This flexibility will allow some people to relocate to Kitsap County who might otherwise resign themselves to I-5 gridlock. 

The Takeaway: What the fast ferries really deliver is not capacity for new trips, but flexibility for commuters. 
The Impact: More frequent sailings by both the Washington State Ferries and Kitsap Fast Ferries will be added to meet the commuting demand anticipated by 2030. Real estate development in Kitsap County will also rise to meet that demand, but will not exceed it.

8. Move Seattle and the Seattle Bike Lanes

By naming Shefali Ranganathan as her deputy mayor, Seattle Mayor-Elect Jenny Durkan has sent a signal that the initiatives promoted by the Transportation Choices Coalition will continue to have a voice in mayoral and City Council offices. The Coalition saw the success of Move Seattle under Mayor Murray, even though he, like Durkan, had not been endorsed by the Coalition. That success is expected to be sustained under Durkan as well.

Mayor-Elect Durkan’s appointment of Ranganathan suggests that a consensus has been reached in favor of a less automobile-dependent Seattle, and it indicates that the drive to roll out a citywide network of bicycle paths is likely to proceed unhindered. This is good news for dockless bicycle companies like LimeBike and Spin that have invested to build their businesses here, as it will increase demand for their services. The same can be said for ride-sharing apps and companies such as Uber and Lyft, as well as home delivery services such as Amazon Key. Higher residential densities are called for, and this means that real estate development will be increasingly aligned with Sound Transit infrastructure plans, generating demand for those programs and facilities. A pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly Seattle means more high-rise condominiums, as well as apartment towers.

There will be costs and friction to this urban development scheme. Not all residents will benefit equally, and rather than becoming more diverse, some areas of Seattle may evolve into more of a monoculture for healthy singles and professionals. Affluent elders and young families may be able to hail a Uber for any trips desired; but without their own car, members of cost-conscious households will need to be fit enough to walk or pedal their way through Seattle’s hilly terrain, either directly to their destinations or to the nearest transit station. Not all are going to be up to this, and those that aren’t will be drawn to the suburbs.

The Takeaway: The drive to roll out a citywide network of bicycle paths is likely to proceed unhindered. 
The Impact: Within the next five years, policies disfavoring the automobile portend that more high-rise condominium projects will get underway. Longer term, some areas of Seattle may evolve into more of a monoculture for healthy singles and professionals, which will impact both residential and retail offerings in the city.

9. Manhattanization: Integration of Ride-Sharing Apps

Software that connects mobile phones, cars, transportation networks and global positioning systems are finally enabling the infrastructure imagined by generations of transportation planners and science fiction writers. These technologies have arrived at the moment of Seattle’s “Manhattanization,” the process coined by Dean Jones of Realogics Sotheby’s International Realty to describe the increasing densities and planned reduction in automobile dependence in the city.

Manhattanization means that Seattle residents will come to live like those of other cosmopolitan cities around the world, but in a 21st-century fashion, facilitated by home delivery of purchased goods by programs like Amazon Key; dockless bicycles provided by LimeBike and Spin; and rideshare apps and networks like Uber and Lyft. In the short run, rideshare technology will continue to be used just as it is in cities around the world, as a technology-driven taxi-hailing service. By 2040, transportation planners foresee an autonomous vehicle corridor with integrated, driverless sharing. Should this be realized, cars without drivers will pick up and deliver passengers to destinations both within and adjacent to the corridor.  

Besides driving demand for the aforementioned technologies, living without an automobile allows cost-savings, both of automobile ownership and in residential construction. Innovative residential projects like NEXUS, for which more than 100 condominiums have been sold without parking spaces, and other projects in the pipeline like KODA with an even lower parking ratio, are banking on the these trends.  Buyers may discount the cost of owning a car (interest on a loan, fuel, insurance, maintenance, parking, tolls, and taxes), treating those savings as funds available for purchase of a home. For those choosing this path, those savings may be sufficient for them to buy a home amid escalating condo prices.

The Takeaway: Living without an automobile allows cost-savings, both of automobile ownership and in residential construction. 
The Impact: The convergence of technologies and applications related to commuting and transportation of goods will trend with increasing urban densities and greater investment in condominium construction from downtown Seattle outward.

10. The Autonomous Vehicle Corridor

It’s 6:15 a.m., and Thea is running late. As her car exits her garage in Anacortes, she knows that on any other weekday, she can easily make it to her job in Everett by 8:00 a.m. But today she has a meeting in Seattle. She has prepaid her monthly expressway tolls for $68. But she can’t afford to be delayed, and traffic in Interstate 5’s second-tier lanes will slow to less than 20 mph south of Marysville. The premium lane will cost her $130 for a single round-trip.

Thea drowsily surveys the fog-blanketed Skagit Valley as she is carried across the Duane Berentson Bridge. She’ll need to make a decision before she reaches the gated entrance to I-5 at Burlington. As if reading her mind, her car sends her an onscreen message and a voice reminds her of her scheduled trip details. “Do you want to change your plans?” Thea reluctantly selects a change. She is offered a choice of route or lane change options, among which she chooses “lane change” followed by “premium.”

Arriving at the gated on-ramp to I-5, her car is recognized and the entry barrier is raised. Her car is guided into the center of the forked on-ramps to the expressway. To her left is the dedicated freight lane; to her right are the second-tier lanes she usually takes to Everett. Within a few seconds, her car accelerates to 70 mph. Thea switches her Sirius XM channel to Symphony Hall, and dozes off in the left front passenger seat.

This is a plausible story of the future under plans proposed in a September 2017 report by Madrona Venture Group in cooperation with Microsoft. Their report declares that by 2040, “all of I-5 be completely autonomous, and no human-driven cars be allowed on the highway.” That is, the expressways from Vancouver BC to Tijuana will be reserved for Level 5 vehicles, those that meet the Society of Automotive Engineers’ definition of complete vehicle autonomy. The authors of the report project that the technology for these vehicles will be available within the next three years (by 2020).

This proposal coincides with Transportation 2040 funding source assumptions by the Transportation Futures Task Force assembled by the Puget Sound Regional Council. Those assumptions are that by 2040, our current freeway system will be fully tolled, with mileage fees in place and with the constitutionally dedicated motor fuel taxes having been phased out. Like the current tolls on I-405 and three other tolled facilities, system-wide tolls would be set by the seven governor-appointed members of the Washington State Transportation Commission, not by elected members of the State Legislature.

Such a system requires that every vehicle on the controlled guideway be connected. Whether the interplay among cars and the roadway is centrally controlled or hive-like, the cars won’t be any more autonomous than bees or ants. Therefore the system must be closed to human-driven cars; and by the time that is carried out, there must be a threshold proportion of vehicles that meet the requirements in order to prevent societal disruption. So the semi-autonomous features in the car you drive today, such as parking assistance, will have both a semi-autonomous mode and a fully autonomous mode that can be remotely “switched on” at some future date certain. This is how control of the highways funded by our grandfathers’ gas tax will be transferred to a closed, automated system that you will pay to use from then on. 

Industry experts question whether such a system can be implemented so completely while remaining affordable and accessible to all drivers. GM’s director of autonomous vehicle integration, Scott Miller, recently dismissed claims by Tesla CEO Elon Musk that that company’s Model 3, already in production, will allow Level 5 capability. Miller said, “To think you can see everything you need for a level five autonomous car [full self-driving] with cameras and radar, I don’t know how you do that.”

Each of the competing systems being tested by GM cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars, and GM is some ways away from getting the cost low enough to be commercially viable.”

If it is ultimately achieved, some aspects of an autonomous vehicle corridor are bound to spawn yet-unimagined complementary products and home- or community-based systems in areas along and adjacent to the corridor. In more affluent communities, these will tend to enhance the comforts enjoyed by residents. 

The Takeaway: Some aspects of an autonomous vehicle corridor are bound to spawn yet-unimagined complementary products and systems.

The Impact: Systems and products developed to complement autonomous vehicles may be expected to add value to homes in affluent areas in or adjacent to the corridor. (Note that as discussed in “Toll Futures on I-405 andB eyond,” if applied system-wide, mileage fees and especially tolls will tend to suppress real estate prices in rural counties, provoking legislative resistance.) 

The FutureCast Forum is a collaborative of independent opinion leaders who explore current and projected market fundamentals that are materially influencing the Seattle/Bellevue metro area. Founding members and guest columnist provide timely insights on the state of the economy; commercial, residential, and retail development; evolving demographics; wealth management considerations; government policies; lifestyle trends and international interests that are reshaping our skyline into a global city on the rise. For more information, visit


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