Who Should Pay for the Transportation Infrastructure?


Urban regions are significantly more important than any one city located within them. Housing, transportation, economy, and politics help produce uneven local geographies that shape the individual identities of places and create the social landscapes we inherit and experience. As such, decisions made within one city can ripple through the entire urban region. When affordable housing is systematically ignored by one city, neighboring cities become destinations for those who cannot afford higher housing costs. Even when the minimum wage is adjusted in one city, others cannot ignore it.

In fact, a differential wage structure can produce diverse economic and labor geographies. Affordable housing and uneven economic development, in their turn, impact the regional transportation and infrastructure: if the cost of living and wages in one city in a particular region are high (as in San Francisco and Seattle), then low and middle-income workers will move to a more affordable neighboring city and pay a higher price, particularly in time spent, for transportation. They also pay more in fuel, and hence taxes that fund infrastructure maintenance and expansion.

In other words, while companies and the more affluent population benefit from the agglomeration economies of alpha cities, it is the lower-wage workers and the population at large that pay for these uneven development. Therefore, a company deciding to locate in Seattle or San Francisco, or any location, does not have to bear the cost their decision imposes on urban transportation and the infrastructure needed to support their operation. Instead it’s their employees, particularly those with lower earning power, who do.

How many LEED certified buildings and downtown redevelopment projects does it take to make up for this inequity?  Should a city be considered green, if a significant portion of its low earners has to commute to neighboring cities to afford a home? Can a city be seen as sustainable, if in a style akin to medieval cities, serfs have to leave every evening and return in the morning to make sure that the ‘creative class’ is adequately served?

As states such as Washington engage with the old “pay as you go” policy of increasing fuel taxes to pay for the infrastructure, the question of what forces created the emergent commuting patterns remains unanswered. Was it just the commuters, acting as informed participants in the market economy, who sought to optimize their housing and transportation trade offs? Or did the locational choices of employers contribute to the growing commuting problems in the region? If commuters are subjected to “pay as you go” policies, shouldn’t employers who locate in expensive housing markets, irrespective of their employees’ income profile, be subjected to “pay as you locate” policies?

Perhaps no metro region will make a better case study for this inequity than the area that ‘serves’ Seattle. The Puget Sound Region consists of four counties; however, to make sure that no one county that might have an economic connection with Seattle is left behind, we can look at six counties: Snohomish, King (where Seattle is located), Pierce, Kitsap, Thurston, and Mason.

The entire urban region is served by a small number of highways, including Interstate 5. According to 2013 economic data, these six counties housed nearly 62% of all firms in the state. Furthermore, a quarter of all businesses in these counties were located within half a mile of a freeway. In terms of total employees, the six counties contained 69% of the state employment, and workplaces within half a mile of a freeway employed 37% of all employees in the counties. The inequity in the regional economic distribution is further exacerbated by the fact that the small area in West King county bounded by I-405 houses 30% of workplaces and 47% of employment, and generates a significant portion of the sales/revenue in the six counties. This area relies on I-5, I-405 and I-90 for the delivery of its employees from near and far.   

The economic calculus of the early days of Interstate construction may have suggested that the trucking industry would benefit from this transportation infrastructure, but 1960s economists might be surprised by the type of companies now located within half a mile of freeways. In the six counties in Western Washington, the economic sectors over-represented in these geographies are: services and finance, real estate, and insurance (FIRE). Anyone driving on I-5 and I-405 (where Microsoft and other corporations are visible) can see this.  None of these workplaces require trucking. While their well-paid employees can afford to live in well-to-do places, including Bellevue and Seattle, many others reside in less expensive places such as Auburn, Tukwila, Tacoma, and Federal Way.

A map of the region clearly suggests that neighboring counties and cities are housing those who work in West King County. Mobility has been the answer to unaffordability in this and other similar urban regions. If a city is unaffordable, is it fair to ask those who search for affordability in ‘other’ geographies pay for their so-called choices? Is this truly a choice? Are employers, current and future, asked to pay for their locational ‘choices?’ 

Surely, we can do better than asking employees to bear the burden of a regional economic imbalance. Freeways should not be freer to some than others.  If this nation is about people paying for choices they make, then everyone should do so: employers and employees alike.

Ali Modarres is the Director of Urban Studies at University of Washington Tacoma.  He is a geographer and landscape architect, specializing in urban planning and policy. He has written extensively about social geography, transportation planning, and urban development issues in American cities.

Seattle photo courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com.