One track mind

IT'S SIMPLY too easy to write headlines lampooning the steadily more ludicrous efforts of Sound Transit to build its "Central Link" light-rail system: Train to Nowhere. Tripping the Light-Rail Fantastic. The Missing Link. Unsound Transit. Unwise at Any Speed. Pissing Away a Fortune.

It's been nearly a half-decade since King, Pierce, and Snohomish County voters approved a ballot measure providing funding for Sound Transit's package of improved public transit. While commuter rail and improved bus service has gone well, the centerpiece of the package, light rail, has turned into one of the great taxpayer-funded debacles in state history. Not only has construction not started, not only has property not been bought, not only is there no exact route, but planners don't even know where it's going to start or end, how it will get there, or how (tunnel, elevated, at grade) it's going to travel.

There is literally nothing to show for the mountains of money Sound Transit has been collecting and spending. Long before the first property purchase, Sound Transit's price tag estimates for light rail have been routinely outpacing the rate of inflation—in Zimbabwe. To be sure, some things have happened: For example, the tremendous community goodwill towards light rail that came with the original vote has almost completely evaporated. For one reason or another, every neighborhood mentioned in light-rail's plans is angry about them. And these are the folks that—after the years of construction and dislocation—are supposed to benefit from the project.

Meanwhile, the feds have yanked their funding, and the state isn't kicking in—largely because everyone outside of Sound Transit's offices is horrified by the apparent level of incompetence and mismanagement. It's hard to tell from the daily headlines, because the bad news drips out every day like a faucet leaking tax dollars. But taken as a whole, this project—if not in conception, then certainly in execution—is a snowballing catastrophe.

According to a poll, about half of our city thinks light rail should be scrapped. That's actually much worse than it sounds, because much of the "go ahead and build it" sentiment is based upon an awareness that our chances to build anything that might help our region's horrendous gridlock are so rare, it's either light rail or nothing at all for perhaps decades to come. And half of us, at this point, think "nothing at all" is the better option.

Stopping light rail, or stopping Sound Transit, will be no easy thing. The enabling legislation approved by voters contained no end date; ST can keep collecting taxes forever, unless someone does something. It seems that it would have to be either the state legislature or someone sponsoring a statewide initiative. Because Sound Transit is a special district—covering parts, but not all, of three counties—initiatives won't work. In Olympia, so long as Co-speaker Frank Chopp helps set the House agenda, such legislation is unlikely to ever reach the governor's desk. (That was the fate this year of a Senate-passed bill that would have sent the project back to the voters.) Various light-rail opponents are talking about a King County initiative denying Sound Transit use of the downtown tunnel, which they believe would kill the project by taking out the only feasible way light rail could get through downtown.

But don't count on that—Sound Transit is so desperate to build something that it no longer appears to matter where it goes or who, if anyone, it serves. The latest incarnation of ST's plans (the term is used loosely) offers four possible short segments (with the loss of federal funding, there isn't enough money for anything else) of the original plan. The idea is that some mythical future funding source will enable more of the system to be built later.

The favored segment seems to be "Scenario 2," which runs from Convention Place to the Henderson Street station in Rainier Valley. Sound Transit doesn't seem to care that this is the route with the lowest projected ridership and the neighborhood most strongly opposed to it. At a staggering $200 million a mile (and counting, fast), planners want to build it simply so that the system will have what they call a "backbone." No jokes, please—we have enough already.

I've been very much in the "We may never get another chance to build a viable transit system" camp for five years now. But the preposterousness of this latest plan has finally swayed me. Eventually, we're going to be paying $10 billion a mile (those consultants are expensive) for a one-mile system connecting two Paul Allen properties. Or worse, a mile-long trench through the city with nothing in it.

An otherwise tenable project has become untenable because there is no apparent prospect that its overwhelmingly incompetent, wasteful management will improve. There is no other choice—dismantle it. Whatever the monorail's faults, they will pale by comparison. Heck, being stuck in traffic would be a better option than another decade of watching light rail self-destruct on our tab.

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