Raising flags about light rail's impacts

"We're talking about too much money for too little benefit," said John Niles.

If you guessed that Niles is talking about Sound Transit and light rail, you would be right. And Niles, who is the technical chair of the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives (CETA) is nothing if not direct:

"Some people think light rail is the key to fix traffic congestion. It isn't. Sound Transit's previous Environmental Impact Statement shows that it won't make one iota of difference, and that's assuming they ever get to Northgate. The impact on congestion is remarkably small. We're talking 150,000 regional boardings daily by 2030 out of 11 or 12 million trips a day by then."

Voices in favor of light rail might not welcome the notion of criticizing the project. After all, physical work is actually under way to connect downtown to Tukwila and presumably Sea-Tac. The downtown bus tunnel closed a few months ago to convert it for use by both buses and light-rail trains. But the points Niles makes are worth considering given that the plan is still to bring light rail to Capitol Hill, en route to Montlake, the U-District and, eventually, Northgate.

CETA is a regional citizens group formed to highlight Sound Transit's light rail problems and to promote cost-effective solutions. The organization says it's pro-transit, and that many of its members are former light rail supporters. CETA began in 2001, founded by former King County Councilmember Maggia Fimia, long a vocal opponent of Sound Transit. It's fair to say that CETA is not a fringe group.

Nor is Niles a naysaying reactionary. He has degrees from MIT and Carnegie Mellon and is the head of Global Telematics, a local public policy research and consulting firm which deals with transportation and telecommunications issues. Even if you don't share his point of view - meaning you are a supporter of Sound Transit's light rail - he doesn't come by his opinions randomly.


Niles wants people on Capitol Hill to know about dirt and trucks. Tunnel boring machines used to build the tunnel under Broadway will chew up a great deal of dirt, and that dirt will be hauled away by trucks. Sound Transit estimates that 20 to 150 truckloads of dirt will be hauled away every day, for three to four-and-a-half years. The trucks will travel along Olive Way to the construction area along Broadway.

"I'm not sure people really know about the dirt. The Broadway station is cut-and-cover construction. The dirt comes out of a large hole in the middle of Broadway and needs to be trucked away," he said. Plus, if the funding to go to the University District isn't there - a big if - the Broadway station could serve as a temporary terminus. This would mean crossover tracks would need to be built to allow the trains to turn around. It would mean the construction site would be larger as well, and the Broadway station would take more time to build.

Niles pointed to the energy cost of building the line from downtown to N.E. 75th Street through Capitol Hill. CETA mentions that 15,000 tanker trucks full of diesel fuel, 8,000 gallons each, are needed to build it. He said it will take 87 years for the energy savings from people riding trains to equal the energy cost of building the line.

Financing issues, as always and not surprisingly, loom large. Niles said that the $750 million in federal funding that Sound Transit has applied for will face stiff competition from other transit projects in other states. Plus, regulators may want to see the initial light rail line, scheduled to open in 2009, is working well, including verifying that buses and trains can share the downtown tunnel, before they agree to provide more federal money. It's not money in the bank, not yet.

"That funding is by no means a sure thing," Niles said.

He, and CETA, simply believe light rail under Broadway is the wrong solution.

"The question of serving Capitol Hill to downtown is one thing. The buses are very slow. But it's important to ask ourselves if a tunnel under Broadway to the U-District is really needed," he said.

CETA's alternatives are not as sexy as light rail. Niles said that Bus Rapid Transit provides a far better bang for the buck.

"There are all sorts of ways to make buses better along I-5, at a fraction of the cost. But they're not as prominent as digging a tunnel under Capitol Hill. Bus Rapid Transit, as a modern concept, is a portfolio of improvements that can be done incrementally. Bus frequency can be increased. You can dedicate more street space for buses, more diamond lanes. Create an off-vehicle payment scheme where people buy tickets at kiosks. Take advantage of technology for better route modeling. There are other, cheaper options."

Niles attended Sound Transit's Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) forum a few weeks ago at Lowell Elementary School. He was surprised at how few people asked hard questions about construction impacts. I suggested there may be some battle fatigue in play, as well as a sense that whatever will take place on Broadway will happen so far in the future - light rail is slated to come to the Hill around 2016 - that it's difficult for light rail to achieve status as a practical, physical concern. While I don't think this applies to a majority of people on the Hill, I certainly know several who do feel this way.

The official comment period ends on Wednesday, Nov. 30. (Go to www.soundtransit.org.) But Niles added that since the board will vote next spring on the final go-ahead, there is still time to ask serious questions of the agency.

"This isn't about transit vs. roads," Niles said. "It's about transit verses transit. It's about asking 'what kind of transit do we want?'"

A question certainly worth thinking about.

More information is available at www.effectivetransportation.org and www.soundtransit.org.

Around Here is a column by the editor of the Capitol Hill Times. Doug Schwartz can be reached at editor@capitolhilltimes.com or 461-1308.

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