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Originally published September 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 1, 2008 at 10:29 PM

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Proponents, opponents of Prop. 1 debate whether light rail is the right way to go

In a campaign debate Monday, Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger argued an east-west light-rail line is crucial to connect his city to Seattle, while opponents of Sound Transit's Proposition 1 favor cheaper express buses to move people in the Eastside's Interstate 405 corridor.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

In the mind of Bellevue Mayor Grant Degginger, this fall's transit vote will propel his city down a path of no return.

Bellevue will link up to the light-rail corridor now being constructed through Seattle — or Bellevue will be left off track.

"The question for this city is, 'Do you want to be on it or not?' " said Degginger, speaking at a debate Tuesday morning for Sound Transit's $17.9 billion Proposition 1, on the Nov. 4 ballot. The event, at the Hilton hotel, was sponsored by the Bellevue Downtown Association.

Opponents argue that the rail plan ignores the much greater numbers of people who commute within the Eastside, and who need north-south service along the Interstate 405 corridor.

"There's much better choices than what we've been given," said Dick Paylor, representing the Eastside Transportation Association (ETA), a group that supports ride sharing and road projects, and is supported by Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman.

An Eastside bus-rapid-transit system, including stations, could be built for about $1 billion, the ETA says. If the lines operated on high-occupancy lanes on I-405, Paylor said, no tax increase would be needed, as Sound Transit would collect enough money through existing taxes.

Proposition 1 would boost Sound Transit's sales tax by a nickel per $10 purchase, or $125 next year for an average household making $65,000, for at least 30 years. Businesses also pay sales taxes and would likely pass some costs to consumers.

In return, the agency promises to deliver light rail to Lynnwood and north Federal Way by 2023, as well as the east-west line from Seattle to Overlake (near Microsoft headquarters) by 2021. A modest bus increase would start next year, while Sounder commuter trains would nearly double their capacity by 2015 between Pierce County and Seattle.

"These are just promises," said Paylor, given Sound Transit's history of cost overruns and delays on projects voters approved in 1996. A $2.7 billion rail line from downtown Seattle to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport opens late next year. Rail will not reach Capitol Hill and the University of Washington until 2016, a decade late.

Also speaking were Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels on the pro side, and Washington Policy Center analyst Michael Ennis against.

The proposed light-rail system is capable of serving as many users as local freeways, said Nickels, who serves as Sound Transit chairman. As population grows, streets eventually will become too crowded for a bus-based system to function, he said.

Ennis dismissed the capacity argument, saying the trains won't be full, because the vast majority of people prefer to drive. "The agencies come out and say the capacity for light rail [is] a million trips per day. Doesn't matter. I have a briefcase that can hold $1 million. Is there $1 million in there? No."

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Nickels described electrically powered rail as a step toward reducing greenhouse gases.

Paylor replied that by the time rail is built, huge numbers of drivers will have converted to plug-in electric hybrid cars or other cleaner fuels.

Gasoline prices will never return to $3 a gallon, so the region needs transportation choices, Degginger said.

"We've got a question," he said, "of whether we're going to deal with the world as it was, the world as it is, or the world as it will be."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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