A pet peeve of mine, and mine only, is the habit of attacking one alignment or another as “political.”  It’s a tool of both Sound Transit critics (North Sounder, Central Link) and those who generally agree with ST (the Wallace alignment). It also turns up in discussions of certain Metro routes.

I think the problem with this accusation is that it presupposes that there is a platonic ideal of an objectively optimal route for any given project. In fact, any routing decision is a complex tradeoff between a number of different objectives and interest groups.  Most people agree that ridership, VMT reduction, lowest cost of service, and improving the mobility of low-income people are important objectives for a transit system. Many people here would add “encouraging dense development.” On some level many people think it’s important that those who pay for the service should benefit from it.  If you’re a rail advocate, speed, reliability, and quality of service are probably important ends in themselves.

Cursory examination of these objectives shows they are to some extent in conflict. There’s a word for trading off competing interests; it’s called “politics.” There is no other way to resolve these conflicts in a democratic society than to have our representatives haggle this out.

I don’t mean to suggest that this always results in sensible outcomes. To make up an example, if there had been a politician from Bothell that was obsessed with rail, and had therefore spent a decade of his time on the ST Board advocating for his constituents, we very well might have seen an earlier emphasis on service to Bothell.  In real life, I believe the recent overwhelming emphasis of certain Bellevue activists on reducing impacts on their neighborhoods to be misplaced, and in any case not an important regional consideration.*

Tarring our opponents’ ideas as “political” doesn’t move the discussion forward because it doesn’t contain any information.  Let’s instead look at what each proposal is trying to achieve and explain why those objectives are invalid or less important than our preferred ones.

*Not important, because Link is destined to run through someone’s neighborhood, unless you (stupidly) push it away from where the people are.  It’s just a question of which one!

23 Replies to “Editorial: “Political” Lines”

  1. Thanks once again Martin. Well-thought, clear editorials like this are what make Seattle Transit Blog a lot more than just a news site.

  2. Well said, Martin.

    And for Sam, no, Machiavellian is not a better word. Perhaps compromise is, and I don’t see that as a bad outcome like some people do.

    1. I find it hilarious that in Houston rail is seen as potentially threatening lower-income black areas, whereas elsewhere in the country it raises the specter of white flight.

      One would think that residents on lower incomes would appreciate a transit corridor.

      1. In fairness, the concern is usually that they’ll be priced out of their neighborhood and won’t be around to appreciate the new transit corridor.

      2. Which you hear echos of in SE Seattle, though really it is too late at this point.

  3. From the article, “But residents of affected neighborhoods don’t necessarily want to see that kind of environment: many people live in Southeast Houston because of how it looks, not because they’re looking to see it evolve into a district of four-or-five story structures.”

    Don’t they realize that politicians and transit planners know what’s best for them?

    1. Politicians and transit planners can only push light rail because it’s popular with the electorate at large, or because (in cases such as ours) the electorate directly voted for it. It’s a question of long-term regional interests versus short-term hyper-local interests, not one of politicians-and-transit planners versus the huddled masses.

    2. The question is not whether it’s better for them, but whether it’s better for us.

      One of the things we’re supposed to learn as we grow up is that sometimes our own personal preferences must give way to the needs of a larger group. Ideally, this is some kind of ‘baby steps’ progression, that might start with not fidgeting in church and progress to the ability to pay attention in school. Eventually (the raison d’etre for having a minimum age for voting) we reach the point of understanding that in a democracy, voters can approve very big projects that we don’t like.

      Naturally, some of us understand this sooner than others….

      1. Exactly. Being selfish in the short run often results in a less desirable long run. As individuals, we’re very bad at calculating long-term risk. The housing market is a great example of that.

  4. What’s funny is I know Ben, The Catlady, and Jason’s type. They are the first people who are going to scream NIMBY when a project “for the greater good” is proposed in their neighborhood that they don’t want.

    Nobody can speak to me about doing what’s best for the common good. I moved to within walking distance of work. I live a sustainable lifestyle. I am part of the solution.

    1. You know squadoosh about me, Sam.

      “Nobody can speak to me about doing what’s best for the common good. I moved to within walking distance of work. I live a sustainable lifestyle. I am part of the solution.”

      That’s nice for you. Who cares? The topic is the politicization of rail routing in Houston, not whether you think you’re a great guy because you walk to work.

  5. If things weren’t done “politically”, Tacoma would be Seattle and vice versa, as Tacoma is the natural harbor and should have been the terminus for the Empire Builder, not Seattle. Crafty Seattle politicians prevailed and the rest is history — although to this day we suffer by having the densest part of town in the most inaccessible piece of land in Washington State — a penninsula surrounded by water!

    How much of our problems would simply go away if Tacoma, with its limitless East, were the big city. Maybe it should be…

    Speaking of everything being equal for the politics, taking the bus from University to International Dist. to catch Sounder introduced me to a new phenomena — the Transit Traffic Jam! Seems like those tunnels are getting awfully full up at times (even off peak) causing transit to get backed up in the tunnel. That’s a shortcoming of single file transit.

    1. They each had pros and cons. Elliot Bay is much deep much faster, for one.

      Tacoma did its best to kill Seattle, and it did not work.

      1. Didn’t work…yet.

        I have taken a step back from all the machinations of “Seattle” and it made me realize that so many of the “transit problems” are just based on location, location, location. Seattle, in fact most of Puget Sound, is in a bad location for the things a 21st Century region would want.

        I have now created a new site called “Masterplan 2100” which proposes an entirely new way to look at it:


        “There are many piecemeal proposals and plans to “solve problems” in Washington State. All of them suffer from accepting too many presuppositions and existing conditions.

        How much easier, rational and futuristic if we could start from ground zero, and plan as if we were not constrained by the past. But, you might say, what about all the investment made so far. I say, whatever it was, it will be trivial by the grand new plan that I present. “

      2. I remember attending a King County Economic Development meeting (at Weyerhaeuser in Federal Way) in maybe 2004 where most people were trying to get all our ports to compete collectively against, for instance, Vancouver and Prince Rupert. The hangup for Tacoma advocates is that the only regional name that the world knows is *Seattle* — not Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Tacoma, or Everett. In fact, only around here do we call the airport *Sea-Tac.” The world knows our city, our metro, and our region as Seattle.

        The fight with Tacoma is so over. Although I think it’s beyond insulting to consider a Chihuly glass museum now for Seattle. It was bad enough for Tacoma to lose Russell to Seattle.

    2. Both Tacoma and Seattle practiced robber-baron capitalism in the 1800s. The railroad magnates in each city wanted a monopoly on transcontinental travel, and the cities wanted the growth that a terminus would bring. Tacoma won for a while, but then the railroad interests changed and Seattle came out on top. Bill Speidel talks about it in “Sons of the Profits”. I’m not sure what gave Seattle the final advantage, but I guess the Great Northern (now Empire Builder) ended up becoming the main line to the east, eclipsing Tacoma’s line.

      As to whether Seattle or Tacoma would be a more efficient center, I don’t know, but Seattle has been the center for a hundred years. Why hasn’t Tacoma done more for itself in that time?

      1. The Great Northern was by far the better engineered and faster route between the mid-west and Puget Sound in the 19th and early 20th centuries, eclipsing Tacoma’s Norther Pacific by many measures: speed, grades, bigger locomotives, etc. To this day, the High Line across northern Montana, built by James J Hill the Empire Builder, remains THE major freight rail route (and only Amtrak route) between Pugetopolis and the mid-west.

      2. There is a reason the old GN route is now BNSF’s Northern Transcon while the old NP route got sold to Montana Rail Link (even if most of the traffic is now BNSF overflow from the GN line).

        I believe the Milwaukee Road line was even better engineered and faster than even the GN line. Imagine what might have been if rather than scrapping electrification the Milwaukee had taken GE up on its offer to supply new electric locomotives; electrify the section from Avery, ID to Othello, WA; and bring the rest of the electrical infrastructure up to modern standards all for $18 million in the early 70’s. The Pacific Extension likely would never have been abandoned and the Milwaukee might either still be around or part of one of the 6 non-BNSF class I railroads.

Comments are closed.