Josh and I met a couple of days ago with two opponents of the roads and transit package (Mike O’Brien and Tim Gould of the Sierra Club) and although I am, as I’ve said a zillion times before, still ambivalent about the package (intuitively, passing up 50 miles of light rail seems like it must be a bad idea) I have to say that they made some really convincing arguments against the package.
First, a bit of background: Residents of King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties are being asked to vote up or down in November on a huge package of new roads and transit—about $18 billion in all. Of that total, about $10 billion will pay for 50 miles of new light rail north and to the Eastside; the rest will pay for roads projects, including 152 new miles of general-purpose highways and freeways. (There will also be 74 miles of high-occupancy vehicle—HOV—and high-occupancy toll—HOT—lanes). Because the state legislature, in its infinite wisdom, tied the two unrelated proposals together, rejecting roads means rejecting transit, and vice versa.
Pro-transit supporters of the package pretty much stop there. How, they argue, could we turn down the first opportunity we’ve had in a generation to more than double the region’s light rail system? Yes, there are roads in the package—including bad roads, like the four-lane widening of I-405—but a lot of those will actually help transit. Expanding 520, for example, will create two new HOV lanes. And look at all that light rail! Shiny, shiny light rail. How could you say no to all that light rail?
The Sierra Club’s rebuttal is compelling.
First of all, O’Brien and Gould noted, let’s look at what happens if we DO pass the joint roads and transit package. That will be our last chance to make a truly ambitious investment in transportation for a generation. It is, in other words, our last chance to do it right. As O’Brien puts it, “It’s not like we have pools of $18 billion just sitting around.” If we pass this package, we’ll have light rail, but we’ll also be stuck paying for, and building, all those new roads—roads that will just fill up, as roads do; roads that will contribute more to global warming than light rail takes away; roads that certainly won’t be much help in easing congestion without a much larger investment in transit than the one in this package.
One thing almost no one is talking about is the climate impact of a massive new investment in road expansion. Sure, boosters of the proposal pay lip service to reducing greenhouse gases (the official goal adopted by the county is an 80 percent reduction by 2050), but when it comes to taking real action on climate change, they’re still in thrall to the pavement lobby. Yes, the plan includes a “study” of the climate impact of the package. Simultaneously, however, strict “accountability” requirements elsewhere in the proposal lock regional leaders into building every single mile of road in the package. So it doesn’t matter what the study says; if we pass this, we’re getting new roads, melting ice cap and dying polar bears be damned.
What might the actual climate impact of RTID be? Because no official study will be done until after the election, it’s hard to say; however, the Sierra Club cites a study by the Puget Sound Regional Council, which concluded that building both the roads and the transit components of the plan will lead to a net increase in vehicle-miles traveled of 43 percent. Because vehicle-miles traveled translate, roughly, to carbon produced (a mile traveled works out roughly to a pound of carbon in the air), that’s approximately a 43 percent increase in carbon emissions—at a time when we’re supposed to be reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent. Doing nothing at all, of course, would likely lead to even higher net emissions, but opponents of the plan aren’t saying “do nothing.” They’re saying, do something better.
Proponents of the ballot measure say if we reject it now, it’ll be years before we have another chance to vote again on light rail. They say the governor “won’t allow it” on the ballot in an election year and predict the following year will be too soon. Feh. First of all, the governor would be wise not to alienate transit-loving King County voters, who provided her slim margin of victory last time. Moreover, the last time Sound Transit was rejected, in 1995, it came back the very next year—and won. Light rail is popular now, and will be even more popular once it opens in mid-2009. We should be willing to wait two years to get it right.
Incidentally, the voters agree with this point of view: A recent Elway poll found that four out of five respondents believe light rail will come back on its own.
There are other problems with this specific light-rail plan. It’s paid for with regressive sales tax instead of user fees like car-tab taxes and congestion pricing, either of which would be a fairer way to fund a transit program that will be used mostly by the middle class and the working poor. Because its financing is structured over a very long time (50 years) it takes a very long time to build; light rail won’t reach Microsoft, for example, for 20 years.
Meanwhile, the roads in the package are mostly what the Sierra Club (and Transportation Choices) would call “bad” roads: four new general-purpose lanes on I-405 (no HOV!); the widening and extension of SR-167 to the Port of Tacoma, which started as a two-lane freight-only road that bypassed I-5, but has since become a sprawl-serving four-lane highway with an I-5 interchange; the extension of SR-509 to I-5, which will put thousands more cars onto I-5 in South King County; and, potentially, the Cross Base Highway, which will connect sprawl and pave over some of the last remaining oak prairie in Western Washington.
Two days ago, King County Executive Ron Sims came out against the joint roads/transit proposal. In an editorial in yesterday’s Seattle Times, Sims wrote that the plan “doesn’t solve traffic congestion in the short term, nor does it provide enough long-term relief to justify the financial and environmental costs. … We must not make transportation decisions without considering the impact on global warming.
I agree. The roads package we’re being asked to vote on represents the solutions of the past—regressive sales taxes, toll-free general-purpose lanes, and pavement, pavement, pavement—and, in doing so, sells out future generations.