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Light rail vs. fat cats: Less money for the rest of us

Post by Kim Bradford on April 24, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
April 24, 2011 8:50 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

No Sound Transit project gets built quickly or easily, but the effort to push light rail out to King County’s Eastside is beginning to take on Herculean proportions.

The three-county transit agency ostensibly won a key legal victory last week against Eastside developers trying to keep light rail out of Bellevue by blocking its path across the Interstate 90 floating bridge.

But this is just round one. The monied interests fighting Sound Transit have promised another go, and they just might land a few jabs next time.

The opponents – led by downtown Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr. – asked the state Supreme Court to rule on whether the state can sell or lease highway lanes to be used for light rail.

The court’s reply: No sale or lease has happened, so the question of whether one would violate the constitutional prohibition against using projects built with gas-tax money for public transit is premature.

“… petitioners seek a writ broadly prohibiting DOT from taking or authorizing any future action with respect to the transfer or occupancy of I-90 for light rail,” Justice Charles Johnson wrote for the majority.

“We have consistently held that we will not issue writs generally ordering state officers to adhere to the constitution because we presume that they already do so without our direction.”

The 7-2 decision, as well as Justice Gerry Alexander’s concurring opinion in which he lends credence to the dissent’s view that the state’s plans violate the constitution, leaves the court plenty of room to maneuver should Freeman and company made another try.

Freeman says count on it.

And so Sound Transit is likely to spend more years and thousands of dollars trying to fight its way across Lake Washington and into suburbs that desperately need congestion relief. The agency has also invested tons of time and money in defending its proposed route through Bellevue – only to discover that the city official leading the charge there had a huge vested interest in trying to get the line rerouted.

Councilman Kevin Wallace failed to disclose a $30 million deal he had with a company looking to use the same rail corridor he suggested Sound Transit use for the East Link light rail. He is now facing an ethics probe.

Every dollar spent on clearing the way for light rail is a dollar that can’t be spent on laying light rail tracks.

Sound Transit officials announced last year that the agency is facing a $3.9 billion budget shortfall over the next 13 years. Translation for South Sounders: Don’t count on seeing light rail anywhere near the Pierce County line anytime soon.

Transit dollars don’t follow the path of least resistance – nor should they. But those of us at the end of the line can’t help but worry that the region will run out of cash and political will before it’s our turn.

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