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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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June 23, 2008 8:22 AM

Former DOT chief argues against light rail

Posted by David Postman

Doug MacDonald, the former secretary of the Department of Transportation, says Sound Transit's expansion plans would cost a lot but do little to untangle the region's transportation mess. Writing at Crosscut, in the first of three pieces, MacDonald says ST's tax proposal would create a "river of new money ... flowing to the board of directors for decades."

Don't hold your breath to see new transportation services from these projects anytime soon. Most of the new projects would not go into service until 2020, when today's four-county regional population is expected to have grown by an additional half million people, from today's 3.6 million.

Nevertheless, some of those eventual projects certainly will be big - in dollar cost, anyway! ...

At the same time, they will — in terms of contributing to regional transit needs — also be very small.

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Posted by JimD

9:32 AM, Jun 23, 2008

We've sooo squandered past opportunities to start building commuter transit.
I remember a light-rail proposal from Bellevue's Eastgate to Seattle back in the 60's (I believe) that was defeated.
It only would have cost a few million dollars at the time.
It could have been the start of a BART-like system.
Portland has built an excellent light rail infrastructure.
Did you know Seattle once had a cable-car system that rivaled San Francisco.
Queen Anne's "counter balance" hill was in reference to the huge counter-balance weight under the street that pulled cars up to the top...
It was all ripped out in favor of buses (along with LA and many other cities that abandoned very efficient "light rail"), which pushed and financed by the automotive industry - particularly makers of tires.
(interesting history there)

We're so hopelessly behind and adrift that even buses flying through the air on monorails - in an earthquake prone region sure to get the big one sooner than later - made it into early development.

I love Seattle, but we're such LOSERS on transportation it's downright humiliating.

I think McDonald is telling us an inconvenient truth;
Any system at this late date is going to be extremely expensive and produce negligible effect in the foreseeable future -- to the extent the practical alternative may be to just skip it altogether.
In combination with the new oil energy reality, we may be faced with a $20 trip a few miles across the area by either car or mass transit anyway.
Maybe we should re-design our lives to eliminate this kind of travel altogether... YIKES!

Posted by upchuck

10:40 AM, Jun 23, 2008

since recently visiting europe for my honeymoon, i am struck by how short sighted we seem to be, at least here in the pnw, when it comes to investing in our urban infastruture... not too surprising of a perspective when you consider that a 100yr old building is considered relatively new in paris or rome, but very 'old' over here. but becasue our corner of the world developed recently we should realize that our investments ccan have an impact beyond a couple generations out even though not much impact is felt from a couple generations back. it seems we build our buildings to be torn down and replaced every couple decades... is this the legacy wants to leave our grandchildren: a buch of crappy old condos that need to be torn down and a dilapitated fleet of rusty old diesel buses?

true, light rail investment is not cheap, but consider that the investment phase will last mere decades and the benefits can be enjoyed for generations and built upon. i hope we can think more in terms of building a society t based on sound investments that can last and be enjoyed by generations rather than what is the cheapest and most efficient way to go in the short term.

Posted by Bothsides

11:57 AM, Jun 23, 2008

What, someone speaking out against this awesome project that will let people ride the train from the airport to downtown Seattle, why I don't believe it, why would you not want to do that, oh, maybe you don't work downtown or live at the airport, but hey, are you sure, I thought everyone worked downtown.... Sure, let's give them billions more based on the congestion relief the first phase will bring, which is zero and the great job they've done containing costs, which is also zero. I can't believe I voted for this 12 years ago. We'd be better off scrapping the light rail and buying a bunch of Vans and buses.

Posted by upchuck

12:34 PM, Jun 23, 2008

"congestion relief" if the only or most important goal of transit is to make the increasingly socially and environmentally irresponsible choice of driving cars easier.

the fact is that with our population 'congestion relief' is impossible, but creating alternatives to driving cars is.

Posted by JimD

2:51 PM, Jun 23, 2008

"..We'd be better off scrapping the light rail and buying a bunch of Vans and buses..."
I understand this sentiment - feel it a bit myself in light of these projects' ever increasing costs, now skyrocketing even higher with new fuel and product costs going into the construction itself.
But it's the same short-sighted thinking that has stymied development all along, with a string of past opportunities that seemed too expensive at the time but were a bargain compared to putting them off.

Upchuck makes a good point about building beyond just the cost benefit and instant gratification of the immediate future.
Indeed, our propensity to build EVERYTHING commensurate to "what it gives me now" instead of the higher goal of a lasting investment for the future generations, is surely sabotaging what could be a more lasting society and culture.
Unfortunately this thinking permeates everything - from constructions, our vehicles, the way products are the quarterly dividend checks public corporations have to produce at any cost.
What kind of a honeymoon destination would Europe be if their culture hadn't bothered creating anything that would last beyond their lifetime, or didn't produce a dividend in their immediate future.
I too am tempted to say let's just go with vans and buses.
But my better side says let's forgo our personal instant gratification and build something for our country that history can be proud of.

Posted by Bothsides

5:05 PM, Jun 23, 2008

Build what? It does no good if no one is there to ride it, I mean the per seat mile cost of this light rail is going to be outrageous, and for what?

Sorry Upchuck, but I don't want to join your commune socialist community, I'd rather be free and continue to use my car as I see fit, not as you socialist enviros want me too. Congestion relief is not impossible, it has just been ignored by people like you who refuse to understand that more general purpose lanes need to be added with the growing population. Contrary to your belief not everyone lives or wants to live in the Seattle city limits. Yes. light rail is expensive, seems like it's about 2.5 times as expensive for the first phase than was promised, but what do we get for it? A train from SeaTac to downtown that can be used for generations to come, yippee, that really excites me. I to have been to Europe and have seen their transit infrastructure, but they were smart, it was put in place in the beginning and they were not in love with the automobile like the US. Light rail is not the best option for the NW as our geography does not lend itself to that being an affordable option and I'm tired of it being crammed down my throat, I doubt I'll ever get a chance to use it in my life.

Posted by JimD

5:51 PM, Jun 23, 2008

"...and I'm tired of it being crammed down my throat, I doubt I'll ever get a chance to use it in my life.."
Nothing personal, Bothsides - this is very typical of our American mindset.

But it is a good case in point of how short-sighted our interests and priorities have become.
You nailed the difference between us and Europe - they're reaping the benefits of something they sacrificed for long ago and can now enjoy relatively efficiently.
I suspect there were many Europeans who similarly fought their train network - didn't want to pay for it, didn't think it was necessary, didn't think they'd ever use it themselves....

> I won't be here to experience the total destruction of humanity due to global warming, so I don't care.
> I won't be here when oil eventually runs out, so I just want to use as much as I can in the meantime.
> I'll move out of this new neighborhood before it becomes a ghetto of worn-out box stores, cheaply built townhouses and skanky strip malls, so I don't care how it's zoned or built.
> I don't care if my stock portfolio contains corporations that are reeking havoc half way across the world, I want my dividend check every quarter no matter what it takes.
> I'll won't live long enough to see the long-range benefit of establishing a lasting, mass transit network, so I'm not supporting it.

Point is - a transit system is an investment in the future.
It's merits are not just the immediate cost/benefit to us, but those who will inherit it.
This consideration is - and has always has been - a distinguishing charateristic among civilized societies that lives for more than just their immediate gratification.

Posted by jan

6:59 AM, Jun 24, 2008

MacDonald has been fighting against light rail for four or five years. Just like he's been fighting with people on the Viaduct, the 520 bridge and other things.

The guy seems to like to argue - and its pretty clear he likes a fight.

He's now repeating the "cost too much, does too little" mantra of Ron Sims and Kemper Freeman on last year's Prop 1. But in typical MacDonald style, he forces all of his words on us, so as to underscore the idea that he's thought about every angle.

It is a cute game. But it is ultimately dumb. When it comes to transit: There is a case for light rail. There is a case for lots more buses.

But if we're ever going to get any of it, we need far less fighting and far more agreement. That's why we needed a new transportation leader in the state.

Posted by RAF

8:08 AM, Jun 24, 2008

This is the same Doug MacDonald who used the State DOT to advertise for the gas tax shamelessly? SEnding out postcards on our dime to advocate against I-912? He also put up nearly 100 signs (illegally) fot $10,000 each along the freeway declaring how our taxpayer money is well-spent.

I do not need $1,000,000 spent to tell me that my money is being cared for by my government.

Fortunately, he appears to have found the truth now that he can no longer benefit from the taxpayers' pocketbooks.

Is he asking for a state job to shut him up?

Posted by upchuck

10:24 AM, Jun 24, 2008

"I'd rather be free and continue to use my car as I see fit" if roads are completely free and don't also rely on tax investments made by others in the community. or that building transit will somehow banish cars from the road.

"commune socialist community"? ...hardly. what i advocate for is quite modest. your rhetoric seems to suggest that i'm calling for state appropriation of every private vehicle in the region = )

more things we could be asking fro that are still not extreme, using my european honeymoon again for examples, separate lanes with curbs dividing them from the main street on most of our major roads for safer bike and scooter travel, or to have drivers automatically billed up to $20+ every time they cross the boundary in and out of the urban district, we could be asking for a day every month where no cars are allowed on the road, or the closing of many major streets to cars all together to create public space for farmers markets and and the like.

Posted by upchuck

10:28 AM, Jun 24, 2008

...or a doubling or even tripling of gas taxes on par with european levels, etc.

clarification: i'm not actually advocating for these, only creating a comparison so that light rail creation can be viewed in the correct context as a sensible investment rather than as some extreme communistic idea = )

Posted by jeeves

11:08 AM, Jun 24, 2008

Doug's got his head up his backside.

1. Its not about congestion relief. In an area of population growth, all the evidence shows you cannot build your way out of congestion. Ever drive the 8 lane freeways in LA? You are still stuck in traffic.

2. It is about lifestyle choices. I witnessed the change in land use, property values and freedom that came when the D.C./Maryland/Virginia built the Metro system. Housing prices skyrocketed near the stations (much to the dismay of those who sold there houses before the stations got built out of racially tinged fear of inner-city people being able to get to their suburban neighborhoods). There is freedom in riding in a clean, air conditioned train listening to your IPOD or reading a book or going to dinner and not having to have a designated driver.

3. Transit doesn't require density, it creates density. Experience shows that when light rail runs well, density develops around the stations and along the corridors. Has it not always been so? Notice the developments along the freeway entrances/exits? Notice the major cities develop along the ports, the railways and canals and junctures of rivers?

4. Think long-term Doug. It is about the future. How many times has Seattle had the opportunity to build a major league transit system and then backed away? We could have had the feds pay for 50% or more of it back in the 70's. It won't get any cheaper in the future so do it now. Do it for the planet, do it for your children and do it for your property values.

Doug, break out of your paradigm. You are trapped into fighting the last war. Garnering favor with suburban voters who are hard wired into their commutes is not what Washington needs. With gas prices at $4+ a gallon, the conditions are right for breaking away from the same-old, same-old.

Posted by Independent_Center

12:50 PM, Jun 24, 2008

Where transportation is concerned, I'm no major expert - but i do know this much - if the Seattle-Tacoma metro area doesn't do something now to deal with traffic, we will have major problems with traffic later, and the problem will horrendously more expensive to fix later. All the "experts" that think that light rail doesn't seem to help traffic should go and visit Houston TX - I was a child there and still remember the 4 hour trips just to get across downtown and the LA-grade nightmare traffic - AND the 5-hour gridlock in the 70's and 80s.

They have light rail now. After a lot of grousing and grumbling like I'm currently seeing and hearing here in Seattle, they FINALLY implemented light rail...

Traffic is now relatively reasonable in a city that is the third or fourth largest in the country, and it now only takes about 1.5 hours to cross downtown driving - and about 45 minutes to get to most of the major areas of town by light rail in a clean, efficient and fast way.

I want to see that here, and I'm willing to pay higher taxes for it too - AND with light rail plus the public transit we already have, I don't have to buy a car and add to air pollution, global warming - or money coming out of my pockets to keep OPEC, the oil and gas companies and speculators rich and getting richer while I lose more money every day with no wage increase in sight.

Let's go back to the conservation habits of our grandparents - conserve and save!

Money. gasoline, and energy.

Bring on the light rail and more buses and trains too!

Posted by Bothsides

4:01 PM, Jun 24, 2008

We're too spread out for light rail, we can't build enough light rail to make it reasonable for people to ride, so you will still have mass congestion and a real expensive train.

Posted by jeeves

5:44 PM, Jun 24, 2008

Dear Bothsides,

You are wrong to think that that the lack of density is a reason not to build light rail. Think about why areas are dense and others are not for moment.

..... (thinking?)

People and businesses aggregate around transportation routes. That's how ancient cities were formed along cross-roads, trade routes, safe harbors etc.

Don't believe me? Check out the Washington Post classified and see how many rentals and houses for sale tout their proximity to the Metro. Areas become dense after the convenient, safe and efficient transit alternatives become available.

Posted by jeeves

5:53 PM, Jun 24, 2008

Here is a link to an article that y'all should read. If we get our act together, it should be a link to our future.

Posted by JimD

7:22 PM, Jun 24, 2008

"...We're too spread out for light rail, we can't build enough light rail to make it reasonable for people to ride, so you will still have mass congestion and a real expensive train...."

Well...light rail is actually part of a comprehensive approach where the combined product of various alternatives create a net improvement.

For example - you might live a few miles from a light rail station you drive your car to, then take the train to work.
Perhaps the trip to local shopping is easiest by car, and if you're just going to visit friends or pick-up a few things, a bicycle may be the best alternative for those inclined to manual transportation on occasion.

And as noted above - efficient, effective mass transit lightens the crush of urban desirability by offering transportation alternatives that would probably offer a cheaper net cost, given the lower cost of living farther away from urban centers.

San Francisco / ay area has it made with BART.
Many, many folks commute to work from some distance, and return home to a less expensive, higher quality of life than they could afford living closer to work or traveling by car exclusively.

It will ALWAYS cost too much to build.
That's what we've been saying for decades, when it really WAS cheap by today's standards.
It's not too late to get in on what soon will become the "good old days" when light rail was still cheap compared to what it will cost in another 20 or 30 years ;-)

Posted by upchuck

11:27 PM, Jun 24, 2008

one more quick point: there's a lot of stuff in between downtown and the airport (seems like some of the nay sayers fail to notice)

= )

Posted by Bothsides

5:50 AM, Jun 25, 2008

You're all on some kind of drug or living in la la land...

We are all ready "populated", and I like living in the burbs so I don't think I'll be moving to a train station any time soon. We approved (including myself) light rail 12 years ago, cost is 2.5 times planned and nothing is complete, when it is complete, it won't help anybody except convention goers to downtown. Who are the areas biggest employers and where are they located?

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