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Originally published October 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 26, 2007 at 12:24 PM

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Danny Westneat

Transit debate in a time warp

Here is a tale of two local megaprojects. Both cost $11 billion. Both take 20 years to build. Both will help people move around the region...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Here is a tale of two local megaprojects.

Both cost $11 billion. Both take 20 years to build. Both will help people move around the region. The first I'll call Project A. It is widely praised, considered a no-brainer. Now and then an environmentalist squawks about it, but nobody listens.

Project B is the object of much ridicule. It is called a waste, a boondoggle. A P-I columnist dubbed it an "8-foot-tall steaming pile of elephant dung." Another P-I column said the pile is 10 feet high.

So what would Project A and Project B actually do? Both would transport people along a corridor. So how many people would each move?

Project A, the no-brainer, will carry an additional 110,000 people daily over its 30 miles by the year 2030, according to its planners.

Project B, the wasteful one, will carry an additional 180,000 people per day over its 50 miles by the year 2030.

So ... the boondoggle will transport more people? For the same construction cost?

So it goes in the upside-down world of our transportation debate, circa 2007.

Project A is the widening of the Eastside's Interstate 405. The plan is to spend $10.9 billion (in 2002 dollars) laying four new freeway lanes and a bus rapid-transit route.

When done, the road will be 67 percent wider and carry 110,000 more trips than now. In some parts it will flow more freely. In others — such as the evening rush hour between Bellevue and Renton — it will be as jammed as it is today. (All this is from the state's studies.)

Project B is Sound Transit's light-rail plan. For $10.2 billion (in 2006 dollars), it would extend rail north to Lynnwood, east to Bellevue and south to Tacoma. The whole system, including the line being built now, is projected to carry 300,000 riders daily by 2030.

Yet this is the plan that people are saying is ludicrous.

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OK, maybe you don't trust Sound Transit. I don't. Say the numbers are way off. Say only 100,000 end up riding light rail (Portland has 110,000 on a much smaller system.) That's still as many as are carried on a typical highway, such as the viaduct or Highway 520.

And we all know how much replacing those is going to cost.

I bring all this up because lately I've felt like the guy in that new TV show "Journeyman." It's about a reporter who gets whipsawed through time and confronts mind-bending dilemmas in other eras.

Around here it's like we've jolted back to the '50s, to relive the allure of the highway era.

Last week the state auditor and the editorial page of my newspaper took turns bashing light rail and saying the answer to our woes is to build more highways. The auditor triggered the worst flashback when he said we should tunnel a freeway beneath the city.

But look at I-405. Expanding a road is hardly cheap for what you get. That's why forward-looking firms such as Microsoft also back light rail. It's no panacea, but it creates people-moving power rivaling a highway, with no congestion, for about the same cost.

Note that I haven't even mentioned rising energy costs. Or global warming. That's because I'm apparently in a time and place that hasn't heard of those yet.

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

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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