The Seattle Times had an article out in the last Sunday Times profiling the life of Kemper Freeman and his lawsuit against using the I-90 lanes for light rail. We’ve written so many times on Freeman’s anti-rail positions that I’ve lost count and am frankly weary every time his name comes up in the same sentence as ‘light rail.’ However, I couldn’t possibly pass up the ability to explain in full why most transit advocates have found extraordinary distaste with Freeman’s ideology toward transportation and why he’s simply wrong on many matters about rail.
It’s important to begin by saying nothing about Freeman’s virtues or moral character. Whether he is a good man or not is beyond this argument. The truth remains that a large share of Eastsiders admire him and show it by flocking to his malls and restaurants. Some have labeled him racist— whether he is or not, I really don’t care. In all honesty, he probably gets a good chuckle out of it. Narrowing our attention on that only detracts from the real arguments on why his views on transportation are questionable.
More below the jump.
As a highly regarded developer, Freeman knows he can’t get away with bashing light rail without touting some other transit-oriented solution as an alternative. Along with many other suburban conservatives, he favors bus rapid transit (BRT). We’ve said this before: we like BRT in certain places, but there are key corridors that can benefit far more from rail transit. So if Freeman is indeed supportive of bus service, then why is there such a problem with his attitude towards transit?
First, there seems to be a pretty clear mandate for light rail in this region, and voters have shown willingness to pay into investment for capital rail projects. Despite this, Freeman has spent millions against the advent of rail in the Puget Sound region. If he’s not anti-transit, then where were the millions spent campaigning for and supporting expanded bus service? Not once have I seen Freeman in Olympia lobbying for transit. Not once has he helped fund an independent plan to study implementing bus service he supports. Not once has he made it publicly clear that he cares about saving Pierce Transit and Community Transit. Fighting against a voter-driven mandate is one thing, but transit-washing is clear proof that Freeman’s beliefs behind transportation are ideological, not pragmatic.
Last year, Ben wrote a piece examining Freeman’s motivations behind opposing light rail. Yes, it’s good and well that he might reap no financial gain from Link, but why dip into the fiscal red and spend millions opposing it? I can only surmise that as a prominent libertarian businessman, Freeman feels like he’s doing the tax base a favor by rallying against what he perceives as an “unaccountable government agency.” His reputation among groups like the Eastside Business Alliance demands that he openly oppose “wasteful spending.” The reasons behind opposing rail transit fare a lot better when the arguments are subjective, wishy-washy and centered around something that decries rail funding as “fiscal irresponsibility!” “A vice on our freedom!” Or better yet, “the social engineering scheme of the left-wing Marxists!”
The truth is the arguments against rail transit fare a lot worse when the debate turns substantive. That’s because there isn’t very much substance to criticizing light rail’s costliness when turning a deaf ear to the money poured into road construction. It’s little wonder why libertarians wave their arms at rail transit’s costs, but are oddly quiet when it comes to driving subsidies (and there are a lot more than just road costs: oil subsidies and parking requirements are just two things that come to mind).
Freeman and folks like Mike Ennis at the Washington Policy Center have skirted that argument with the distraction that the majority of existing trips in the region are by car. What I’m not hearing is any mention that temporally, road subsidies have outweighed transit subsidies over a much longer period of time. The reason why the majority of trips are by car now is because of this historical inequity.
At any rate, marginal dollars are still better spent on transit because capacity is so much higher. I don’t need to go over this again, but even when there are brave conservatives standing up against partisan lines on misinformed positions about transit, it’s hard to fathom why some like Freeman still can’t accept the fact that density (yes, even that of Seattle’s) cannot support SOV commuting as the predominant mode share without inducing traffic woes. I try to avoid the partisan implications about transportation policy, but it’s worth mentioning that pro-life Republicans can support biking and transit, like a certain transportation secretary does.
Now on to the actual lawsuit. We’ve said before that Freeman’s case holds no water, but let me run down a couple more reasons why this is an eyebrow-raiser. The plaintiffs allege that the conversion of the I-90 express lanes to light rail is unconstitutional because Washington State’s 18th amendment prohibits the use of gas tax funds for anything other than what it deems “highway purposes.” The whole point of that amendment is to “protect” funding equity for projects that drivers might feel cheated from if they might not ever use such projects. But if that’s the case, then the R8A project (which adds HOV lanes to both outer roadways) is a complete non-issue because not only is net highway capacity preserved, but HOV access is shared equally so reverse-peak commuters (like the ones that happen to live in Seattle but work in Bellevue) aren’t left in the dust.
Freeman knows this. But from a legal perspective, he is adamant that the center lanes should only be reserved for any vehicle that consumes oil, whether capacity is preserved or not. The State Constitution’s definition of “highway purposes” is an arbitrary one, and in the case of the center lanes, the 1976 Memorandum of Agreement (along with its 2004 amendment) to build the lanes makes said purposes inclusive of specifically accommodating high-capacity transit, so yes, conversion to rail is considered a “highway purpose.” That renders East Link constitutional. I should also mention that the center lanes were funded with a bulk of federal money, which isn’t restricted by any such constitution.
We know the lawsuit has no merit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Freeman knows it too. But if that’s the case, his continued persistence against light rail makes me seriously question if his opposition is anything but an ideological war that has no place in a region that needs better transit infrastructure.