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Make Investment in Transit Now - a Seattle PI OpEd

by Mike O'Brien and Tim Gould, guest columnists

Last year voters turned down the Roads and Transit ballot measure, a package that included 50 miles of light rail and 182 miles of highways. The Sierra Club opposed that package because the additional highway lanes would swamp all benefits of increased transit and worsen global warming. Today, the Sierra Club supports Sound Transit presenting the best possible transit-only plan to voters in November.

Transit alternatives will help reduce global warming pollution, half of which comes from vehicles in this region. Scientists say we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. James Hansen of NASA says carbon in the atmosphere has passed the critical level of 350 parts per million and we must act immediately to reduce it.

With gas prices soaring, demand for alternatives to driving is surging. Around Seattle, the average household spends 53 percent of its income on housing and transportation costs. Transportation costs alone account for more of our income than food and health care combined. And it is getting worse; this data is from 2000 when gas cost $1.59 per gallon compared with Washington's recent average of $4.37.

In the past six months, Americans drove 30 billion fewer miles than they did the previous year. Simultaneously, transit ridership is up significantly. King County Metro, Community Transit, Pierce Transit and Sound Transit Sounder commuter rail and express buses are struggling to accommodate more riders.

Our region needs to invest heavily in better pedestrian and bike infrastructure, more frequent local bus service and regional high-capacity transit, including light rail and bus rapid transit. We will not see a single ballot measure addressing all those city, county and regional needs. That must not stop us from supporting light rail, a critical piece of the puzzle.

Critics point to the Sound Transit proposals and say we need more bus service delivered sooner. It's a valid point. The crisis of global warming demands we make immediate changes in the way we get around, and the rising cost of fuel is creating immediate demand for more transit. We cannot, however, be so shortsighted that we neglect our longer-term needs. Much like balancing the need to pay the mortgage and save for retirement, we need to make smart investments in transit for today and tomorrow.

To meet statutory pollution reduction goals, we will need many options: light rail, buses, bike lanes and tolled roadways. Sound Transit Phase 2 (ST2) is a critical piece of our transportation future that needs to begin now. While its reliance on a sales tax is far from ideal, we can later look to funding sources such as tolling major highways, which can also reduce pollution and manage congestion.

In neighborhoods where there is significant and growing demand for transit, local bus routes simply cannot meet demand. We need light rail or BRT in such corridors. Improvements already are under way, but more are needed.

Snohomish County will soon see the Swift BRT on state Route 99, and King County Metro will have Rapid Ride bus rapid transit running in five places. Where there is higher ridership throughout the day, light rail is necessary. ST2's line from Northgate to downtown Seattle is rated as the best place in the nation to invest in light rail. Additionally, ST2 will nearly double capacity of Sounder commuter trains from Lakewood and Tacoma to Seattle. It improves connections at transit hubs and service levels of express bus service along I-5 between Everett and Seattle.

The station areas also have the potential to transform the way we live by creating sustainable living centers around transit hubs where people can walk, bike or take transit to meet most of their daily needs. This will require Sound Transit to work with local government, neighborhoods and developers to create a future where we reduce our reliance on cars and expensive gas.

We are tired of sitting in our cars burning fuel and dollars, while watching our time evaporate. The Sierra Club strongly urges Sound Transit to let the voters decide on investing in more transit this year.

Mike O'Brien is Cascade Chapter chairman of Sierra Club. Tim Gould is transportation chairman of Sierra Club.