This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
I admire Erica Barnett’s work, especially her efforts to lay out the surface/transit option for the Viaduct so clearly and effectively. Most journalists are skeptical of anything that isn’t a highway. Barnett is one of the few who “gets it” in that sense.
That said, I’m bothered by this piece in The Stranger, lauding the Sierra Club for refusing to “cave” on the Cross Base Highway and accusing environmental groups who support the RTID compromise of “selling out.”
But politics is not a spectator sport, of course: tough skin is a job requirement. So let’s talk about the substance of the article. Barnett laments the fact that the joint RTID/ST2 package is too roads-heavy, despite the fact that over 60% of it is going to transit. The project, she says, includes “1,500 new lane miles of freeways and arterials” but only “50 miles of light rail.” Well, if we’re going to compare lane-miles to rail-miles, then the number’s at least 100, since the rail is double-tracked. And if we’re going to talk about moving people instead of moving cars (which was Barnett’s position during the Viaduct debate), then the 100 rail-miles have a capacity that’s probably close or equal to the 1,500 lane-miles.
The main thrust of the complaint, though, is that the greenhouse gas emissions of the cars on all those new “lane miles” will cancel out the benefits of rail. But that assumes that car emissions stay constant, which is far from certain. It’s more likely that cars will get cleaner and more fuel efficient over the next few decades (though cleaner cars are not the answer to everything). It also assumes that people won’t change their ways when given the option of light rail. People like Barnett and myself argue constantly that people will gravitate to denser, more transit-oriented lifestyles if they’re given the option. Isn’t that still the case?
Finally, Barnett wonders, “why, then, would environmental groups sell out light rail for a package that only paves the way for that to happen?” The answer is that the environmentalists can still tie the CBH up in the courts for years, if not decades. By that time, light rail could be up and running from Everett to Tacoma to Redmond and maybe people, having seen the alternative, will stop clamoring for roads like the CBH and its ilk, and the project will die on the vine.
Look, the Sierra Club has every right to oppose the package. Their agenda is simple: fewer highways, more green space. Barnett, too, has every right to oppose it. But the real question, for those of us who have to go to the polls in November, is simple: is it worth pushing light rail back to 2040 or 2050 in the hopes that we will get a deal that’s even better than the one on the table? Given the political realities of the region, our regressive tax system, and the skyrocketing costs of land, construction materials, and labor, the answer is a resounding “no.”