The C is for Crank

Brewster's Half-Baked Argument Against Light Rail

By Erica C. Barnett March 4, 2010

The "city of the future": You can almost see downtown from there!

So David Brewster over at Crosscut thinks maybe Kevin Wallace's so-called "Vision Line" in Bellevue isn't such a bad thing! Never mind that  it's situated far away from most residences, bypasses the downtown business core, and skips the South Bellevue park-and-ride—some suburbanites are worried about "noise and disruption" in their neighborhoods, and by God, they deserve to be listened to.

Oh, and anyone who says otherwise is just a "density-dogmatist" making "ad hominem attacks." Huh?

Brewster's argument gets underway with a classic Crosscut editorial strategy: Set up straw men, knock 'em down.
First, the Vision Line doesn't go through the suburban enclaves lying west of the [Mercer] Slough, where the neighbors don't want the noise and disruption of Sound Transit's planned route, relatively few riders will be attracted, and lawyers are rubbing their hands in anticipation of long resistance in courts. Before Seattleites sneer at the suburbanites, just think how, say, Capitol Hill and Montlake would have reacted if Sound Transit had proposed running on the streets rather than the far more expensive tunnels it chose.

Yes, let's "just think" about that hypothetical, shall we? Hmmm... Well, I, with my direct line into the brains of sneering Seattleites, think most folks in Capitol Hill would've been thrilled to get light rail (like they're thrilled to be getting a streetcar that will run on surface streets).

But since I haven't actually talked to those hypothetical residents—because they're straw men, not people—the truth is, I have no idea what they'd say.

Moreover, bullying shouldn't dictate policy. The fact that a few noisy neighbors in Bellevue have fears about light rail and its "screaming wheels" isn't in itself a reason to move light rail elsewhere. Complaints are inevitable with any change—the job of planners is to decide which complaints have merit, not to cower at the first hint of criticism.

Brewster also argues that moving the line east of downtown will save money—as much as $500 million—compared to the cost of building a tunnel through downtown—"money Sound Transit doesn't have and Bellevue doesn't want to spend."

That's, at best, a half truth—Sound Transit never said it would build a tunnel through downtown Bellevue, so it's always been up to Bellevue to come up with the money (actually closer to $285 million) if they want a tunnel. Not building the tunnel doesn't "save money"—it's what Sound Transit has planned to do all along.

Next, Brewster decides to play transit planning expert:
So, while the Vision Line may have fewer riders in Bellevue, by not having a station right in the center of its downtown (if there is a center), it might gain more than the preferred Sound Transit route by having a better station to the south in Wilburton (with 1 million square feet of commercial space) and where two major bike trails converge. And by getting closer to Redmond. So far, however, Sound Transit studies give the Vision Plan poor marks for attracting riders.

Given the choice between studies by teams of engineers trained in predicting ridership, and the opinions of a defiantly pro-sprawl editorial writer with an ax to grind, I'm gonna go with the transportation engineers.

We'll skip lightly over the next several hundred words, which are basically a rehash of the same arguments applied to the south end of the route (moving rail away from where people live is better for people who don't like noise; some completely hypothetical rhetoric about how the Vision Line will lead to fewer lawsuits) and jump to the downtown segment.

Brewster concedes, grudgingly, that it might appear to make more sense to run transit through downtown, with its dense population of residents, shoppers, and workers (AKA potential transit riders) than next to a freeway way off to the east. Then he derides that theory as an article of faith ("thou shalt not put transit alongside a freeway, goes one tenet") and posits two (contradictory) theories of his own.

First, he says, maybe it's a good thing that you can't build dense housing next to a freeway, since that allows the area around the station to become a transportation hub, with on-ramps and off-ramps as far as the eye can see. The 405 interchange could become Bellevue's Northgate!

Then, without skipping a beat, Brewster makes the opposite case, arguing that because the land directly adjacent to a freeway is "affordable and open," it might be ideal for "moderate-cost new housing" (for future people who, unlike wealthy Mercer Slough residents, won't be bothered by "screaming wheels," one assumes), paving the way for the 405 light rail station to become  "the center of the city of the future."

Shorter David Brewster: Light rail is fine, as long as it doesn't go anywhere anyone currently lives, shops, walks, bikes, or has a job.
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