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Originally published Friday, May 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

A pause for the cause of light rail

If the Sound Transit board puts a light-rail package on the November ballot, it means the Barack Obama faction prevailed. Oh, this has nothing...

If the Sound Transit board puts a light-rail package on the November ballot, it means the Barack Obama faction prevailed.

Oh, this has nothing to do with the presidential election directly, but it absolutely is connected to expectations of a huge turnout and the candidate's appeal to younger voters and independents: demographics as regional transit destiny.

Sound Transit first got traction in 1996, another presidential-election year. Turnout matters. After voters slapped down a package of roads and transit this past fall, there is a strong pull to try again, sans roads with a transit-friendly cohort.

The other view — one I tend to share — counsels a pause until 2010. By then, mobs with pitchforks and torches will be demanding more transit. Gas prices will resemble those in Europe, without Europe's plentiful alternatives to a car. Taking the bus or riding Sounder commuter rail will move from being mocked as a personal virtue to unvarnished economic necessity.

Most important, the 16-mile line from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac International Airport is scheduled to open in 2009. After years of talking about how great it is going to be, light rail finally will be a visible, tangible and popular reality.

Board sentiments leaning toward 2010 are also reluctant to provoke voters with a hasty, tone-deaf return to the polls. Members fear a predictable response: "What part of no did you not understand?"

Another reason for waiting, is to see where light rail and transit fit into a revised financial model out of Olympia that anticipates highway tolling. How might that revenue pie be sliced?

Sound Transit is trying to figure what to do next, and it is eager to hear from the public. In addition to opinion polling by phone and via the Web, community meetings are scheduled from Everett to Sumner during the next month.

Urgency is an ally. Using 2005 data, long before the latest, ceaseless surge in gasoline prices, the Texas Transportation Institute, out of Texas A&M University, calculated Puget Sound commuters paid a $1.4 billion annual congestion tax in wasted time and fuel.

If one can suspend disbelief of surveys commissioned by Sound Transit, the public's biggest gripe is the wait for results. Gripe No. 2 is the timid reach of what has been proposed. Cost is third.

In response, Sound Transit has trimmed the timeline for what comes next. A new, leaner vision looks out 12 years to 2020 — a planning horizon a mere mortal's imagination can grasp.

Expansion options are presented in terms of what can reasonably be accomplished in a dozen years, and finessed by bumps in the sales tax: four-tenths of 1 percent or an additional one-tenth of 1 percent. The difference between a 0.4 percent and a 0.5 percent increase is the difference between 18 more miles of light rail and 23 more miles. On the Eastside, that means downtown Seattle via I-90 to Bellevue's Overlake Hospital Medical Center area, or all the way to the Microsoft campus in Redmond.

Sounder commuter rail and ST regional express bus routes get similar boosts.

Folks standing on the evening southbound commuter trains do not want to wait until 2010. Neither do exasperated political leaders in Pierce and Snohomish counties who are not seeing light rail fast enough.

The next big suburban land rush will be aboard light rail. The cliché about driving till you qualify for a home loan will be updated. Homes in Arlington will sell to young families whose daily car commute is to a park-and-ride lot and transfer to the light-rail station in Everett.

Want a sure bet in public transit? The Seattle streetcar extension from South Lake Union to the University District. An absolute no-brainer. The future is at Westlake Avenue and Denny Way. An urban neighborhood is blossoming. The employment base is already an extension of the University of Washington, so a line north via Eastlake makes perfect sense. As Portland discovered, investment flourishes along streetcar rails planted in the ground.

A pause for the electorate will pay dividends, and progress does not grind to a halt. Sound Transit Chief Executive Director Joni Earl is in hot pursuit of a $750 million federal grant to connect light rail to UW.

Get the first light-rail up and running, and voters will stampede to the polls in 2010.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to www.seattletimes.com/edcetera

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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