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Originally published July 16, 2011 at 8:36 PM | Page modified July 16, 2011 at 9:03 PM

Danny Westneat

One rich guy's unending war on light rail

Ever wonder why we can't get anything done around here? The prime culprit is usually dithering or dysfunctional political leadership. But there's another force gumming up the works. It's people who refuse to take "yes" for an answer.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes There are those who want us to stay in the 1950s, when you either drove to Bellevue, or... Read more
quotes I agree with the earlier comment that you did not look into the real reason Kemper is... Read more
quotes Kemper Freeman, Jr. inherited his real estate empire from his father, Kemper Freeman... Read more

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Ever wonder why we can't get anything done around here?

The prime culprit is usually dithering or dysfunctional political leadership.

But there's another force gumming up the works. It's people who refuse to take "yes" for an answer.

Three years ago, after voters had overwhelmingly said "yes" to building light rail for a second time, even its opponents conceded that an argument dating back to the 1960s had been settled.

"The thing we've been debating my entire lifetime is over: We are going to build light rail," Chris Vance, former head of the state Republican Party, said the day after the November 2008 vote. Later he added: "The war is over and the rail zealots have won."

Spoke too soon. Because the war is back on.

We are going to fight about light rail all over again this year. Not because there's much new to this story. Sound Transit, the agency building the system, hasn't bungled the project lately, as it did 10 years ago. As far as I know it hasn't suddenly dawned on people they don't want rail after all.

No, the fight's on again mostly because one guy wants it. One rich guy.

This spring, Kemper Freeman, Bellevue mall developer, threw his financial weight behind the latest Tim Eyman initiative. Freeman put up $1.1 million of the $1.2 million used to gather signatures for Eyman's Initiative 1125. Safe to say, without Freeman's money, this year there would be no Eyman initiative.

The measure is mostly about tolls, which makes it timely and probably also popular. But one small section is about something else. It seeks to prevent Sound Transit from building the Eastside leg of light rail across the Interstate 90 bridge.

"That would be the result, yes," said Eyman when I asked whether I-1125 would kill the Eastside rail plan. "If light rail wants to go across the lake, they could still do it, but they'd have to build their own bridge. They couldn't be on I-90. They can't take away car lanes."

The section would bar the state from allowing highway lanes built with any gas-tax money to be used for mass transit.

Now the plan to do just that — to turn over the center of the bridge to rail — was hatched back in 1976 by Mercer Island, Seattle, King County and the state. It's taken a third of a century to get around to doing it.

The idea is for Sound Transit to lease the center lanes for light rail, and in return build two new HOV lanes for cars and buses. When it's done the bridge will still have six car lanes plus two HOV lanes for a total of eight. In other words the same number of lanes it has now only with light rail added.

Voters obviously didn't feel this was highway robbery because they backed it with a 57 percent yes vote.

Freeman took it to court, arguing it was an unconstitutional use of a highway — and lost. A Seattle Times story about that case and his decades of opposing light rail was headlined "Kemper's Last Stand." But it wasn't his last. His next stand was to refile that suit (on the grounds the courts hadn't definitively settled if the project is constitutional.) Now his next stand after that is this initiative.

I asked Eyman: When can we be done? I know some don't like light rail, but this notion of running a train across I-90 has been an eye-glazing 35 years in the works. Go back to court if you must. But do we really need another election on this?

Eyman said the voters of the whole state have never weighed in on whether this light-rail project is constitutional.

He added he'd visited China lately, an area with skyscrapers that 10 years ago was farmland.

"The way they do it over there, it's extremely efficient," he said. "Our way is slower and messier. But that's democracy."

I guess. It's a sorry part of our democracy these days that any rich guy can buy his pet peeve onto the ballot.

I noticed in the article "Kemper's Last Stand" that Freeman had this critique of Sound Transit:

"They just plain plow on, irrespective of anyone or anything."

Right back at you, Kemper.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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