I was surprised the other day to hear an election commercial on the radio for something that's not on the ballot this year. The commercial in question is a stirring, schmaltzy number for Sound Transit, asking us what our children will think we accomplished for Puget Sound when we had the opportunity to make a difference yada yada ya or some such nonsense. It sounded for all the world like they were asking for money to build a transit system. Didn't we already vote for this?
Well, yes. And according to Sound Transit, the ads are intended to commemorate the rolling out of the first phase of that project, the start-up on September 19 of nine new regional express bus routes, plus Seattle-Tacoma commuter rail early next year. (The northern commuter rail is a year behind, as it didn't have as much of the environmental study done ahead of time.) But that doesn't really explain the radio ads. You don't solicit voter support for a done deal, unless you've just got so much money sitting around you don't know what to do with it. Hmm.
I suppose that's one possibility, but last we heard light rail was going to cost more than anyone had figured. If anything, the ad seems like tacit acknowledgment by Sound Transit that, besieged as it is by critics on all sides, the light rail system as approved by voters two years ago is going to have a very difficult time getting built. It needs all the support it can get from voters to simply make sure that elected officials and community groups from various constituencies don't process the thing to death.
The list of areas of concern and controversy over the light rail plan is an impressive one. Sound Transit is a regional body, with only a minority of its board representation coming from Seattle; any transit plan has to have something to offer for suburban King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, hence ads calling attention to the implications for generations to come (!) of the early roll-out of the express bus routes.
Light rail gets heavy
Even within the limited Seattle service area of the light rail system, there are plenty of gripes. In the south end alone, Save Our Valley has launched an initiative to force tunneling; Tukwila is upset that the route skips Southcenter and threatens the neighborhood viability of Highway 99; and the Sims/Schell plan is attempting to mollify critics by cutting light rail out of the south end altogether in favor of, perhaps, trolleys. Duwamish area folks are also upset about the placement of an enormous new maintenance yard. On the north side, Snohomish County, local neighborhood, and downtown interests are all disappointed that light rail isn't extended past NE 45th Street—but whether it would go at, above, or below ground and who would pay for it is another set of minefields not even being discussed, since Sound Transit's board decided in February to stop at the U District. The price tag is also going up because of new geologic studies suggesting that the system will have to tunnel more deeply under the ship canal, forcing a very deep U District station. (And still others are upset that the station will be on the UW campus, not on University Way itself.) Speaking of sticker shock, there's the whole idiocy of a useless bus tunnel that cannot handle trains and will need, at great expense, to be replaced, with the congestion that comes with moving downtown busses back on to Third Avenue. Then there's Eastsiders, resentful (or, perhaps, thankful) that the rail system excludes them completely. Voters also approved a monorail system that nobody's lifting a finger to try to get built. Throughout the system, escalating property values are driving up the price tag. And none of this even begins to get into the battles over which houses and businesses will get demolished when new stations are built. All told, it adds up to dozens of reasons why the whole mess may never be built.
Many of these features, like rail to Northgate and the Eastside, were included in the earlier, more expensive transit plan that voters turned down in 1995. The earlier plan was perceived by voters as a boondoggle; it was also a comprehensive transit plan, which the plan we approved was not. So critics try to fill in their particular piece that is missing from the new plan, all the while resisting the old plan's price.
Many folks voted for the newer, inferior transit plan because they were simply desperate for something, anything to be done about Seattle's horrific transit problems. Light rail is the most visible, most expensive, and in many ways least efficient component of the plan. Nonetheless, having it would be better than not having it, and light rail is very much in danger of being processed to death. The final Environmental Impact Statement on the system will be out in mid-October, after which there will be another round of public hearings. It seems like a useful time to remind public officials—especially the ones who serve on Sound Transit's board—that time is very much money for a project like this. The longer we bicker, the higher the price tag will go. And the cost will, indeed, be a legacy our kids will remember, whether the system is built or not. We might as well build it.