The Environmental Case for Light Rail

by Aaron Ostrom, September 2000

I want to start by making it clear that I have the deepest respect for Emoryís intentions and motivations. He is very thoughtful, has a great track record of doing excellent things, and is clearly concerned about the future of the Seattle area. But I also sincerely disagree with him, and believe that he is mistaken on this issue.

The I-745 Context

This response is not as thorough or detailed as Iíd like, but unfortunately I-745 leaves me very little time to weigh in. I will apologize in advance for not generating a timely response to the counter-responses that are likely to cross your desk. The main advocates of transportation alternatives do not have the luxury of engaging in a lengthy debate on light rail right now, because if we donít defeat I-745 the issue is moot. How we rank our transportation choices priorities does not matter if there isnít any money for transportation choices, and there wonít be if I-745 passes. Nevertheless, several of the leading transportation advocates in the environmental community are working on a more exhaustive rebuttal of the claims of light rail opponents that should be available before too long.

Emoryís timing couldnít be worse for I-745. He and others have chosen this moment to recycle their anti-rail efforts because the federal government is now at a critical decision point about funding. If they can stop federal funding now, it will kill the project. The problem is that Tim Eyman is gleefully citing Emoryís efforts as a reason to vote yes on I-745. An orchestrated effort to drag the most visible transit project in the state through the mud is not what we need in the month leading up to an election that for many will be a referendum on public transit. Any debates about light rail between now and November simply fuel Eyman and the asphalt paversí campaign for I-745. The Sound Transit board has committed to a 30-day public review and debate period in November before approving the federal funding agreement or the tunnel contract. The anti-rail discussion should be postponed until that time.

Moving onto the merits of light rail, after a brief appeal for practicality my response covers three different areas: 1) the basic reasons to support light rail, 2) some other considerations (a better boogieman), and 3) brief rebuttals of some important claims that would be of great concern if they held up under closer scrutiny.

The Value of Practicality

Transportation advocates who want to advance their cause must continually balance the theoretical (what works really well in a vacuum) with the practical (what works in a particular location in the real world to meet a particular travel need, and what the public will support and accept). Many light rail opponents are very articulate at the theoretical level, but their batting average drops considerably when the situation requires a good dose of practicality -- especially when itís time to provide alternative solutions. This is not a minor issue. Itís the difference between playing Microsoft flight simulator and flying a real airplane. Itís the reason most of us will be voting for Al Gore in November even though Ralph Nader would provide more uncompromising leadership on the environment.

Why Light Rail

There are several reasons that the vast majority of the transportation alternatives advocates that I know support Link light rail: 1) Light rail is the best way to provide much-needed improvements in our ability to move people in the I-5 corridor; 2) The public voted for it overwhelmingly; 3) Killing light rail takes us nowhere we want to go; and 4) Rail transit has a positive impact on land use and development patterns.

1) Light rail is the best way to provide much-needed improvements in our ability to move people in the I-5 corridor.

Link light rail is designed to meet travel needs in the I-5 corridor between the University District and Sea-Tac. With a little luck, it may be extended to Northgate, but the plan that voters approved in 1996 guaranteed only a line to the U-district. Either way, this is a highly congested corridor with intense travel demand and high rates of growth. I-5 is already full during peak periods and many other times. In this corridor Seattle alone will be adding over 100,000 jobs and 119,000 people over the next twenty years.

Demand on that scale requires a reliable, high capacity transit system that is real-world capable of carrying thousands and thousands of people in that corridor during peak periods. Such a system must have its own right-of-way to ensure that it offers people a reliable alternative in the face of ever-increasing traffic congestion. Light rail provides that capability.

When thinking about the benefits of light rail in this corridor, itís useful to consider them over the long run. As environmentalists weíre supposed to do that anyway, and the controversy generated by the construction process can be a little distracting. We are building light rail for 2057 as well as 2007. If your children are trying to get from north Seattle to SeaTac in 2057, they will be very grateful that we built a light rail system in 2007. If their only other alternative is a bus or some other vehicle on I-5, they will be very frustrated. And in 2057 no one will be debating ridership.

Emory and other light rail opponents offer a range of competing alternatives. Some are downright wacky (like Personal Rapid Transit, a little people-pod system on elevated guideways thatís supposed to provide personal door-to-door service). Others are great suggestions that virtually all transportation choices advocates strongly support (vanpools, additional bus service, better parking policies), and that help address general travel needs. None of them come close to offering the substantial, realistic, reliable ability to move people required to meet travel needs in the I-5 corridor.

I am a big supporter of transportation demand management (TDM), one of the leading advocates in the state. But TDM strategies by themselves cannot address demand on that scale Ė they must be partnered with substantial transportation alternatives that are as reliable and environmentally friendly as you can get. In fact, the main complaint we get about TDM is that you canít chase people out of their cars, with penalties or incentives, until you have an attractive alternative to chase them to. Light rail is that alternative.

2) The public voted for it overwhelmingly.

Voters in the three-county region approved the light rail program by a 58% margin. Seattle residents, the primary funders and users of the light rail system, voted yes to a substantial tax increase at levels higher than 70%.

This is not a minor consideration. We live in a democracy, and the environmental solutions that we can achieve are the ones that the general public and elected officials will approve, not the ones that are theoretically purest. Light rail is tremendously popular. Polls do not show a decline in support for light rail in our region in the years since the ballot measure was approved. Thereís just something about light rail that people like. Go to Portland, ride the Max, talk to people there. Personal Rapid Transit, more buses, and congestion pricing do not enjoy the same support. We have to work with the solutions that can garner approval.

Emory and other opponents fought light rail very passionately in 1996, using all the same arguments that they are using now. They lost overwhelmingly. Link light rail is not perfect. Our political system never produces anything big that is. But it received overwhelming public approval and itís time to move forward. We should not be in the business of overturning elections.

This is an aside, but I personally find it ironic that many monorail supporters constantly berate the city council for failing to implement a substantially-flawed measure that achieved a 52% yes vote with no tax increases. Many of the exact same people are continually attacking light rail, for which over 70% of the cityís residents voted to tax themselves.

3) Killing light rail takes us nowhere we want to go.

Killing Link light rail will not free up money for other good transportation alternatives. The tax authority for light rail is basically reserved for voter-approved high capacity transit. If we kill the light rail project, it is almost impossible to imagine that the State Legislature will simply transfer that authority to local buses, carpools, transportation demand management, and/or personal rapid transit. Transportation stakeholders are already talking about diverting Sound Transitís tax capacity into funding road projects. The fallout from killing the stateís most visible public transit project would turn that flame into a bonfire, and would make doing anything good for public transit in Olympia an almost impossible struggle.

4) Rail transit has a positive impact on land use and development patterns.

Rail lines have the ability to shape land use and development patterns in a way that other transportation choices do not. Builders, guaranteed a permanent and reliable set of customers, will build high-density developments around light rail stations. People and businesses that want good access to high quality transit will move into those developments. Itís a lovely circle that increases ridership and reduces automobile travel. It takes thoughtful planning, and itís not always easy to pull off, but itís happened over and over again around the country.

There are two examples you can all experience for yourselves without much difficulty. In Portland: since its first year of operation in 1986, the 15 mile Eastside MAX line and now the 18 mile Westside MAX have yielded a $2.4 billion increase in the value of developments along the line.  That figure is especially impressive on the Westside, where property values have increased by about $450 million since 1998. In Vancouver: in the first five years of Skytrain operation, a total of $5 billion Canadian in new investment took place along the line.  While itís probably not accurate to attribute the entire amount to the rail system, the system is certainly a major focal point for new investment. Check out Metrotown in Vancouver or Orenco in Hillsboro (just outside Portland) if you want to see a specific example of a high-density, mixed use project generated by light rail.

5) Link light rail has many other miscellaneous benefits.

In addition to taking cars off the road (reducing pollution in a host of different ways), helping land use, and providing important alternative capacity in the I-5 corridor, light rail offers many other benefits. It will improve travel time for many current bus users and free up bus hours for redeployment. Estimates are that it will save up to 2.2 million hours of time annually for former bus riders, after netting out the people who end up with a slightly longer bus ride. Light rail will also free up approximately 300,000 annual bus hours for redeployment, a significant benefit in the post-695 era.

Other Considerations (A Better Boogieman)

Even if you arenít a big fan of light rail, I would argue that environmentalists who care about transportation can find far better boogiemen to worry about than a light rail project. The Puget Sound Regional Councilís Metropolitan Transportation Plan outlines over $38 billion in transportation "system expansions" for the central Puget Sound region over the next 30 years; 63 percent of that ($23.8 billion) is for road expansion. WSDOT is currently doing an EIS that evaluates billions of dollars worth of new general purpose capacity in the 520 corridor, and is about to launch an EIS on $5 billion worth of highway expansions in the 405 corridor. The 405 citizens committee, comprised overwhelmingly of east side highway supporters, voted to include the option of three new general purpose lanes in each direction. WSDOTís current six year plan calls for $6.1 billion in highway improvements between 2001-2007, assuming new revenues. The Governorís Blue Ribbon Commission on Transportation will be recommending a tax package that includes billions of dollars in new revenues for all of the above this fall.

$2.4 billion over ten years for light rail in the central Puget Sound region is a modest, relatively attractive proposition in these ledgers. The bottom line is that environmental activists who care about transportation and want to fight bad things can find better targets than light rail.

The Other Side of Some Important Issues

Light rail opponents make many important claims that deserve closer scrutiny. I donít have the time to respond to all of them here, but I would like to briefly address two of the more troubling ones: 1) the claim that Link light rail will harm low income people and people of color, and 2) the claim that Link light rail is caught up in huge cost overruns that will require an expensive bailout.

Opponents claim that Link light rail, like the light rail project in Los Angeles, will harm the transit available to low income riders and people of color. The situation in Los Angeles Ė which truly is a terrible deal -- is completely different, for several reasons. In LA the light rail does not serve communities of color, and it directly competes for funding with the buses that do (theyíre operated by the same agency). In Seattle, Link light rail will serve the heart of our communities of color (as was demanded by their leaders and elected officials like Norm Rice, Martha Choe, and Ron Sims). The light rail trip from Columbia City to downtown will take half the time it does today by bus. The other difference in Seattle is that light rail and local bus service are operated by different agencies with independent funding sources. Opponents have claimed that Ron Simsí proposal to include light rail in the Metro Transit ballot measure this fall was an effort to bail out light rail at the expense of bus transit. In fact the opposite was true. Executive Sims wanted to include light rail and asked Sound Transit to let him include it in the proposal because the polls on a bus-only measure were not great; adding light rail made it much more attractive to the voters.

Some opponents also claim that surface light rail will have irreparably destructive impacts on the Rainier Valley. Those claims do not hold up under scrutiny. Community leaders in the Rainier Valley insisted on a surface alignment during the early stages of planning. They wanted to make sure that transit riders experienced and did business in the Rainier Valley as trains passed through. Any reasonable comparison of MLK Way now (a speedway filled with abandoned lots and strip development) and the renderings of MLK reconstructed with light rail makes it very clear that light rail will add tremendous value to the community. The vast majority of people and stakeholders in the Rainer Valley have come to this conclusion and support the project; support in the general community is broad and deep. The remaining opposition comes primarily from business owners who will be directly impacted by construction.

The final issue is that there is quite a fuss these days about the possibility of huge cost overruns with Link light rail and Sound Transitís refusal to put everything on hold and submit to an independent audit. Those claims are also much exaggerated.

First, the overruns. There have been a number of changes to the original project budget. Such changes are to be expected as a project moves from a hypothetical plan towards construction. Most of the changes that increased costs were caused by changes in scope that improved the system or increased mitigation (the big examples are the Beacon Hill alignment change and a change to the airport connection at SeaTac). They were able to cover the cost of these changes within their existing tax revenues.

The true cost overruns, and the ones that do merit serious concern, are the potential cost overruns in the tunnel contract. The actual number is not available, as Sound Transit is negotiating with bidders and cannot let competing bidders know each otherís hands before a deal is reached. But the rumor is that the bids came in about $200 million higher than budgeted. These will be driven down considerably during the negotiating process, but it is quite plausible that the final deal could be substantially over budget.

I and many other light rail supporters draw a sharp line here. If Sound Transit is not able to build the line that voters approved without raising taxes they should stop the project. I have heard the Chair of the Sound Transit Board and several other board members, including Ron Sims, pledge to do just that. Light rail opponents claim that once the Federal Funding Agreement is signed, we wonít be able to stop no matter what the overruns. But the facts are that the Federal Funding Agreement will not be approved and signed until the tunnel contract is approved and signed.

As the papers have reported, Sound Transitís budget and finance plan appear to contain enough contingencies to more than handle such cost increases without raising taxes. Thatís good news. It is what they have promised us all along. If they are not able to negotiate a tunnel contract that keeps that promise, Emory and I will be singing the same tune. I do not expect that to be the case however.

Second, the audit. The audit request is simply a tactic to stop the project while the full funding agreement is before Congress. Sound Transit is already audited by three different independent auditors every year, and is also monitored by the Citizens Oversight Panel Ė a group that I and other environmentalists successfully demanded and secured before voters approved the plan in 1996. The Citizens Oversight Panel provides thoughtful and ruthless oversight, and is a very credible check on the agency. There is no need for additional audits. Nevertheless, others and I have encouraged Sound Transit leaders to subject themselves to an open and independent review of their cost estimates and financing capability after the tunnel contract is negotiated and before signing it and the Federal Funding Agreement. I think that is likely to happen.

The Bottom Line

Light rail opponents have launched a very high stakes game with major consequences. I disagree with light rail opponents both on the merits of light rail and the viability of alternatives. I donít believe that they are dealing with the practical realities of system capability and public opinion. I donít think we should be in the business of overturning elections, and I know that the fallout created by killing Link light rail would be a disaster for public transit in this state.

Thank you for taking the time to explore this very important subject. I apologize for the length of this response. Itís a big issue.

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