Lets get this show on the road!
Let's get this show on the road!

Senator Marko Liias does not use transit as much as he would like to, but he has a good excuse.

The incoming chair of the Senate Transportation Committee estimates that on average he uses transit about once a month. He bikes, but only when the weather’s nice.

“I live in south Snohomish County,” he explains. “My schedule is — I’m going from random places to random places.”

Last October, advocates for equitable transportation challenged lawmakers to go for a week without a car, but Liias says that in order to participate he would have had to “cancel a big chunk of my schedule,” sounding for all the world like Rosemary Ackerman explaining that she doesn’t recycle because she doesn’t have room in her kitchen.

To his credit, Liias acknowledges that this is a problem. “I would like someone who has my schedule … to be able to have the same access to the community as I do,” he says.

And that’s not the only item on his wishlist now that he has more authority over Washington’s transportation funding and priorities. With the 2022 legislative session heating up, Liias has set his sights on small goals such as fixing sidewalks; big goals such as lidding I-5; and colossal goals such as building international high-speed rail through Seattle, about which he says, “If I’m in charge, it’s going to happen.”

Good news, buddy: You ARE in charge! Now what are you going to do about it?

Liias replaced state Senator Steve Hobbs on the committee after Governor Inslee tapped the former chair to serve as Secretary of State, a position Kim Wyman vacated for a spot in the Biden administration. Hobbs is a delightful tabletop gamer, but we have not particularly liked his last-century approach to transportation (remember last session’s proposal to tax bicycles and new housing to pay for highways?) so we’re hoping for something more ambitious from Liias.

Among their differences: “Senator Hobbs represents a more rural district than me,” Liias says. “Multimodal solutions are more front and center for me. … I think Senator Hobbs was moving us in the right direction. I think I can move us more.”

Okay, but like … prove it?

For example, last year, Washington and Seattle saw their most traffic deaths in over a decade. When asked what’s going wrong, Liias responds, “The data suggest that 95% of car crashes are due to human error. … It is not the engineering of our roads that are causing fatalities,” but rather speeding and distracted and impaired driving, he claims. That doesn’t seem to be entirely borne out by the state’s traffic data: Just a little over half of traffic fatalities in 2020 involved some form of impairment; 84% did not involve distracted driving; and 70% did not involve speeding.

But whatever the cause, Liias hopes that a mix of technology and infrastructure can bring the state to “Target Zero,” a plan (that he supports) to reach zero traffic deaths in Washington by 2030.

“As we move to an autonomous fleet, [deaths are] going to reduce,” he says — though self-driving cars have been promised for nearly a hundred years, with spotty results.

Liias also expressed interest in steering wheels that can detect impairment by analyzing the driver’s sweat, a technology demonstrated in 2007 and 2017 but has so far been implemented precisely nowhere.

“Our fleet is already somewhat autonomous,” he says, noting that he uses radar cruise control on his Prius all the time. “Autonomous technologies aren’t perfect, they will kill people, but they will kill people at fewer rates than people do.” He reiterated that zero deaths is his goal.

But while we wait another century for the arrival of the zero-death car, we might pass the time by updating transportation infrastructure, a goal that’s probably far more achievable because it actually exists. Back in 2017, Liias sponsored a bill that created a bike safety council, which has since been merged with other groups to form the Cooper Jones Active Transportation Safety Council. He’d like that council to “look at bike lanes,” he says. “I think we should be doing more complete-streets work,” like “separated infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians [and] putting in sidewalks.”

When asked how Washington’s spending on freeways compares to bike and pedestrian projects, Liias is unsure how to answer. “That’s a good question,” he says. “My gut tells me there isn’t one place where you can find that.” To be fair, it can be difficult to tease those numbers apart — for example, how do you account for bridge projects that carry both kinds of traffic? But in general, Liias says, he wants to see highways held to “a complete-streets standard.”

That includes SR-99, from the state’s disastrous mishandling of Aurora Ave down to South Park, where residents are actively trying to get the highway dismantled. When it comes to reconnecting communities divided by freeways — particularly BIPOC communities — Liias says, “I’m very open to that.” He’s aware of Seattle’s disdain for 99, and says that Aurora’s northern reach around Shoreline is “appealing.” (Shoreline’s 2017 Aurora Corridor project added sidewalks, bus lanes, crosswalks, and landscaping … while retaining the multi-lane traffic sewer.)

He’s also eyeing I-5 for improvements. “My vision on I-5 is, we don’t have a scar in the middle of the city,” he says. “I go to the Paramount a lot to see shows, and walking across I-5 on those pedestrian pathways, it’s not a world-class city. It’s not what deserves to be at the heart of our region’s gem.” Liias, who helped secure funding for the sometime-this-decade, vehicle-heavy Roanoke and Montlake lids, would like to see “some kind of lid” on I-5, constructed in a public-private partnership.

Okay, but who’s going to pay for all this? Not drivers, at least not for now. Liias says he’s committed to keeping fossil fuels cheap this year. He’s also “hesitant” about taxes on housing (as Hobbs proposed last year), since “we’re at a huge deficit on the number of units we need to construct, and I want to be cautious about adding additional costs.” Instead, he says, he wants to “incentivize more density and housing.”

Specific budget numbers should start to coalesce sometime this week, as Liias digs into the governor’s budget. Among the expenditures he’s looking at: Subsidies for electric cars (up to $7,500) and e-bikes (up to $1,000), but nothing for conventional bikes.

“I think getting more people on e-bikes is the most effective strategy to convert people to bike commuters,” Liias says. “In terms of incentivizing conventional bikes … I would rather spend that money on protected bike lanes and infrastructure that make it safer and easier to bike. … You can get affordable conventional bikes on the market now. I don’t think consumers need help accessing them.”

Man, I dunno about that. After my bike was stolen last year, $250 or so would’ve gone a long way towards getting a new one and getting rid of my car once and for all. Oh well.

Looking way into the future, Liias is also interested in regional high-speed rail. “It’s something I think we’ve got to do,” he says. “It’s visionary, it’s forward-thinking, and it will dramatically reduce transportation emissions.” He plans to propose spending on HSR planning this year, but notes that it would be helpful if we could tap into the federal government’s competitive grant program — he estimates half a billion from the feds should be enough to start engineering and design.

But that’s a multi-decade process. Looking ahead to the coming weeks, what does Liias hope to accomplish by the end of the current session?

“I would like to see us pass some investment plan that charts how we’re going to use the federal resources from the infrastructure bill,” he says. Among his priorities are the I-5 bridge across Columbia (currently extremely hazardous, with limited accessibility for bikes, peds, and transit) and getting fast bus lanes on the 405 from Lynnwood to Burien — a critical connection to Sound Transit rail.

Also a priority: “Continuing to advance that ball on traffic safety,” and passing legislation to meet 2030 emission reduction goals in alignment with the Governor’s decarbonization plan.

“I’m hopeful that in a couple weeks we’ll have more details on what a transportation package will look like this year,” Liias says. That’s good, because the entire session is only a handful of weeks long, wrapping up on March 10. We’ll keep an eye on how Liias’s freshman year as Transpo Chair goes, and we'll issue his first report card when the session comes to a close.