One more highway

LIKE A BAD PENNY, like Richard Nixon, like hope springing eternal, the idea just keeps coming back: to add a rural beltway to the ever-expanding, ever-mired regional freeway system. Before, this proposed addition was called I-605 and would have looped from Tacoma to Everett, passing between Lake Sammamish and the Cascade foothills. Greens and many local officials decried it as a surefire recipe for sprawl; a 1998 state study found it wouldn't relieve the overload on I-5 and I-405.

But the idea has risen again, in much grander form, just as local counties prepare to ask voters for $2.8 billion to expand I-405 and the 520 bridge. Sen. Dan Swecker, a Republican from Thurston County, is pushing not just a beltway around King County but an entire new superhighway from south of Chehalis to the Canadian border. The essential motive remains the same: to divert the long-haul trucks that jostle with commuters for limited I-5 space; truck numbers have soared as a result of trade agreements. But Swecker envisions building an all- purpose "foothills corridor" that would meet many real needs, with rail, fuel, fiber-optic, and electric-transmission lines as well as a highway; he doesn't mention a bike trail, but I expect he'd throw that in, too. "It's a lot more economical to do them together," he argues. And, perhaps, more sellable. Give one faction a freeway, another a railroad, and wrap the project in community safety: In the wake of the fatal 1999 pipeline explosion in Bellingham, officials are looking to lay a new and safer pipeline further inland, away from cities. C'mon aboard, says Swecker, who claims common cause with that project's exponent, the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Project.

But the Cascadia Project's director, Bruce Agnew, says Swecker's got the wrong idea: The "multimodal" foothills corridor includes pipeline, utilities, and rail freight—but no superhighway, thank you. There's just no room to squeeze another interstate into an area as settled as Western Washington—and there would be "major environmental and equity issues" if you try. Better, Agnew argues, to develop a long-haul highway east of the mountains, perhaps along the current Route 97 from Canada to Northern California, where there's lots of room, flatter ground, and more need for economic development. Agnew says many truckers already go that way to escape the I-5 crunch.

That might make more sense than yet another westside interstate. What makes even more sense is rail—the cleanest, most efficient way to haul goods and people on high-volume routes like the Cascade corridor. Consider the numbers: Swecker guesses that his foothills megacorridor would cost "on the order of $100 billion," a sum that would buy a whole lot of other transport. In 1995, what's now Sound Transit proposed a $6.4 billion regional system that included light rail from Everett to Sea-Tac Airport and Eastside commuter rail; even light rail can seem a bargain compared to new highways. It would cost about $2 billion over the next 20 years to expand and upgrade freight and passenger rail service on the whole Cascade corridor, from Eugene to Vancouver, British Columbia.

But Swecker argues that much of the cost of a new superhighway could be borne by users (the once-dreaded tolls) and public-private financing, now called "innovative financing" to escape the stigma of failed past efforts. But these hopes seem to collide with the boosters' assurances that a new bypass highway wouldn't breed sprawl because its on-ramps would be spaced so widely that local commuters wouldn't be able to use it. The "private partners" Swecker looks to for funding are "big landowners" like Weyerhaeuser and Burlington Northern, who would love to build "planned communities" along a new highway. If you build a highway in the woods, the developers will go there.

Swecker's personal experience is a case in point. He says he'd gladly pay a toll and drive an extra 20 miles from his Rochester home to avoid I-5 and get to an uncongested alternate highway. How can you space ramps far enough to stop determined commuters like that?

Eric Scigliano's environment column appears every other week.

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