It's Time to Stop Waiting for the Interurban
The Regional Express Plan and You

by Walt Crowley
Free Press Contributor

When King County Councilman Chris Vance recently denounced the current Regional Transit Authority (RTA) plan as "social engineering," my mind immediately flashed back to 1958 when other conservatives blasted the very first Metro proposal for transit planning as "socialism."

Fortunately, the days have passed when reactionaries could persuasively Red-bait the mildest progressive idea - be it school integration or Medicare or cleaning up Lake Washington - as creeping socialism, if not galloping Bolshevism. But the debate over mass transit seems to rerun with depressing predictability the same tired protests and cavils from the right.

They are usually echoed by a small but noisy chorus of left-wing Goldilocks who find every proposal too big or too little and never just right, without any sense of shame at making common cause with Eastside real estate speculators or any awareness that their utopian perfectionism only leads to political paralysis.

No wonder we're still waiting for the interurban a half century after the last regional rail service ended.

To borrow the RTA's current campaign slogan, it's about time we broke out of the ideological gridlock which has prevented this region from making any significant improvement to its transportation system - other than building freeways - for half a century. Let's begin with what the RTA plan is, and more importantly, what it is not.

The RTA is the first stage of a regional express system for commuters on the most heavily traveled interurban routes. Nothing more, and nothing less. The plan on the November 5th ballot will establish and operate a combination of commuter rail lines from Everett to Lakewood, 25 miles of light rail in Seattle and Tacoma, 20 regional express bus routes, HOV ramps, and scores of community "gateway" stations. Most express buses will run every 15 minutes day and night, and light rail trains will run every six minutes during peak hours. The plan will also free up 400,000 annual hours of current commuter bus service to improve local transit, and riders will need to buy just one ticket to use the entire system.

The regional express system will cost $3.9 billion to build and operate through the year 2010. Most of this will be funded by raising the sales tax within the RTA transit district (roughly the urbanized side of Puget Sound from Everett to Tacoma) by four cents on a $10 purchase and by raising the price of a vehicle license tab by 3 cents on every $10 of value. Unlike the 1995 RTA plan, the tax revenues from each of six major sub-areas fund only the capital and operating costs for that area.

The system will serve some 400,000 daily commuter trips, about 40 percent of the people shuttling to and from work or school on the region's busiest highways and roads. If all these people drove during a typical rush hour, they would create a single, bumper to bumper line of cars stretching from Seattle to Big Sur. By comparison, a single hour of light rail service can carry the same number of trips as 12 lanes of freeway.

So, will this end highway congestion and solve all of our transportation problems? No. It will also not cure cancer, firm up your abdomen, or usher in world peace.

What the RTA will do is give a lot of us something we don't now have: a choice - a choice between driving or taking a train or bus that won't get stuck in the same rush hour traffic jam with everybody else. It creates an arterial bypass around the worst congestion, and takes the first, fundamental step toward creating a balanced transportation system in which the automobile is not the first, last and only option available to most commuters.

Which brings me back to Mr. Vance and his charge of "social engineering" via transportation policy. He is right, but for the wrong reason.

For more than 60 years, major auto companies and their economic and political allies have pursued a conscious strategy to undermine urban mass transit systems. General Motors, for example, interfered in the national bond market to block financing needed to save Seattle's streetcar system in the late 1930s, and a federal court later found a cabal of auto and road builders guilty of conspiracy to derail Los Angeles' fabled Pacific Electric Red Cars (and you thought "Who Killed Roger Rabbit" was just a cartoon). More recently, highway interests and suburban developers bankrolled opposition to Metro's first transit proposals in 1958 and 1962, as well as the Forward Thrust plans of 1968 and 1970. Some even opposed the modest all-bus plan that created Metro Transit in 1972.

The latter proposals were in part an attempt to undo a fateful decision made in 1967, when the first Puget Sound Regional Transportation Study predicted - and effectively ordained - a future of suburban sprawl. Since mass transit cannot efficiently serve such dispersed development, the study concluded with impeccable logic that the only solution was to build more and more freeways. The rest is history, with the result that we have been socially engineered into a regional land use pattern that decrees our addiction to the automobile and eternal congestion.

Unlike past transit plans, most of the progressive left has finally rallied to the RTA proposition as the first step in breaking down our concrete prison. Ironically, the best arguments I've read lately for a plan like the RTA were penned by a pair of arch conservatives, Paul Weyrich and William Lind. In a recent paper for the Free Congress Foundation, they note that the automobile and its requisite freeways are the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in history, and they ask, "What might the transit-automobile balance have looked like today without such massive government intervention on behalf of cars?"

Audaciously, they declare that "cultural conservatives" (and, I would add, members of the communitarian left) should be disposed toward transit systems because, "Historically, transit helped foster community, just as the automobile helps undermine it." Weyrich and Lind urge support for pragmatic "starter lines" that incrementally build and test transit investments before committing to full-scale systems - just as the RTA does.

The choice on November 5th is really quite simple. We can stand around waiting for the interurban for another half century, or we can finally climb aboard a practical regional express system.

Walt Crowley is an adviser to the Regional Express campaign for the RTA. His 1993 book Routes, A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle, is available for free from Metro Transit (call 684-1162). Crowley's more recent books include To Serve The Greatest Number, A History of Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound, and Rites of Passage, A Memoir of the Sixties in Seattle, both published by the University of Washington Press.

The Craswell Capers

Those zany things this election's Republican gubernatorial candidate did when she was but a wee zealot in the State Legislature

Ellen Craswell, just a slightly misguided, soft-spoken grandmother carrying a bible - and the Republican candidate for governor. Or so you might believe after reading the soft reporting on the gubernatorial race thus far. Perhaps out of fear of being accused of bias against religious conservatives, the local media have soft-pedaled Craswell's consistently bizarre record in the legislature and in public life. Craswell has little in the way of accomplishments to her name, but has consistently been the standard-bearer of fringe ideas abandoned in most civilized nations centuries ago. Look at her record.

Keeping Washington Safe for Child Abuse.

Christian conservatives' fixation on patriarchy and traditional authority relations leads to a perverse tolerance of child abuse. Parents - particularly father - should be able to kick junior around a bit to prevent misbehavior. In 1986 then-Senator Craswell was instrumental in weakening a bill that would have imposed stiff criminal penalties on parents who cut, slug, burn, throw, or choke their children. In opposition, Craswell argued that the bill was unfairly restrictive because "some children bruise very easily." Craswell was also the point person for opposition to bills preventing the use of corporal punishment by foster parents and teachers.

Castration Anyone?

In 1990, Sen. Craswell plunged the state into international notoriety by proposing a bill, which was passed by the Republican-controlled Senate, to make Washington the first state to allow sex offenders to give up their testicles in exchange for their freedom.

No Homos Need Apply.

Craswell has also been a leader in the effort to prevent gay couples from adopting children or becoming foster parents. In an effort to cement her prejudices into state law, Craswell sponsored a bill in 1989 that lumped homosexuals with those who have a "history of sexual misconduct" as those to be prohibited from foster parenting.

Protecting Buccaneer Capitalism.

In 1987 during the heyday of Reaganism and hostile takeover mania, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens threatened a "leveraged buyout" of the Boeing Company. The legislature thought letting an out-of-state vampire engulf and potentially dismember Boeing was neither good for business nor the public, and passed a bill to thwart Pickens. While Craswell has focused more on enforcing her strange moral vision than in protecting 19th century capitalism, she nevertheless took it upon herself to oppose the anti-takeover measure, one of only two Senators to do so.

God Rains on Abortionists.

As reported recently by the Seattle Gay News, Ellen Craswell spoke at a "pro-life" rally in Olympia in 1994, saying: "We were delighted when the Lord stopped the downpour of rain at precisely the scheduled time to begin, parted the clouds, brought forth a burst of sunshine, and topped it off with a beautiful rainbow! What a blessing! We knew He was letting us know that this indeed was good and acceptable in His sight."

What caused this formerly progressive state to nominate such a candidate as the standard-bearer of one of the two major parties? While the Christian right's takeover of the Republican party is the proximate cause, the left is itself partly to blame for failing to provide choices that motivate and inspire average Washington voters. The gutting of the left has allowed the mantle of populism to be appropriated by the extreme right. Only broad-based political organizing that appeals to the majority will pull the political ground out from under these strange Christian "moralists."

Craswell suggested in 1988 that all voters consider before voting whether candidates have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." The staff of the Free Press agree, and urge you to vote "no" against all candidates who use the mantle of god to advance their anti-human agenda.

-Mark Gardner

Please see:
A reader response to the above election articles.

WFP's 1996 local election coverage continues with:
Slow Death for Alternative Health?

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