The below op-ed will be printed in the Seattle Times on October 9th. The op-ed was written by Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club. Over 10 environmental organizations have endorsed Sound Transit Proposition 1. See other endorsements here.
By Michael Brune
Special to The Times
The need for a more robust transit system should be obvious to any Puget Sound resident who has tried to get around during rush hour. Seattle’s economic boom has put tens of thousands more drivers on the road, making traffic gridlock a daily routine.
With the region expected to add more than a million people in the next 25 years, and with very little room for additional road capacity, a reliable mass-transit system is the only realistic solution to Puget Sound’s transportation woes.
Sound Transit 3, which shows up as Proposition 1 on your ballot, is a bold, ambitious transit package — the kind of civic investment our children will thank us for when they’re raising families. It would add 62 miles of light rail, connecting Ballard and West Seattle to downtown and extending service north to Everett, south to Tacoma and east to Redmond and Issaquah. Regular, reliable bus service would connect cities within the Interstate 405 corridor, from Renton to Lynnwood. At a stroke, it would put the region on track to provide 84 percent of residents and 93 percent of workers with high-quality bus and light-rail transit. Alongside Measure M in Los Angeles, it would be one of the most significant transit investments in the nation.
Quick, reliable mass transit has a way of opening up public transportation to people who may have previously avoided it. When the Expo Line opened in Los Angeles this year, its ridership surged past expectations — and about 40 percent of its new riders came out of their cars.
But easing the daily misery of traffic congestion is not the only reason to invest in a modern rapid-transit future. This is a chance for a region that has been leading the way on transitioning to clean, renewable-energy sources to take a crucial next step — using that clean energy to provide clean transportation. This year, the transportation sector, which is overwhelmingly powered by burning oil, has for the first time surpassed power plants as the largest source of climate-threatening greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S. That’s true in Washington state as well.
That transportation has earned the dubious distinction of being our biggest climate problem is partly the result of real progress in cleaning up our energy grid and transitioning away from dirty fossil fuels.
The Pacific Northwest has been a national leader on this front, retiring polluting coal plants, resisting coal and oil exports and promoting energy efficiency in public and private buildings. But it’s also a reflection of how much our transportation sector relies on oil and gasoline. Building more light-rail capacity is one of our most effective options for changing that.
Sound Transit estimates that if Proposition 1 passes, the entire Sound Transit system by 2040 would reduce an estimated 793,000 tons of greenhouse-gas emissions annually and cut vehicle miles traveled by nearly 300 million to 400 million miles as people switch from sitting in traffic to riding on transit. If Washington state is going to do its part to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to the levels called for in the recently ratified Paris climate agreement, it needs an ambitious investment in rapid-transit like Sound Transit 3.
Part of building a sustainable future is ensuring that the Puget Sound area has a green economy that works for everyone. Proposition 1 succeeds on this front, providing 78,000 family-wage jobs to design, build and operate the new transit investments, as well as 144,000 indirect jobs. It would also improve the quality of life of current workers, replacing hours of time wasted in traffic with a stress-free commute.
Equally important, though, is what Proposition 1 would mean for low-income workers and communities of color. Studies have shown that access to reliable transit service is associated with upward economic mobility. That’s especially key in a region that is seeing explosive job growth in its urban core and increasing poverty in its suburbs.
Proposition 1 would also add affordable housing in a region that is seeing rapidly rising housing prices; the measure includes a requirement that 80 percent of surplus land around light-rail stations be dedicated to affordable housing. That would help keep Puget Sound accessible to everyone for decades to come.
Sierra Club members have been instrumental in convincing the Sound Transit board to make Proposition 1 a model of responsible, sustainable rapid transit. That includes adding more urban rail service, providing more support for transit-oriented development and ensuring ease of nonmotorized station access. Their work ensures that this is a gold-standard plan that the Puget Sound region’s citizens will be able to pride for many decades to come.
If, despite all that, Proposition 1 should fail at the ballot box, the problems it would address would not go away — and future solutions would certainly be impoverished by comparison. We could expect less environmentally sound approaches that include less grade separation to reduce congestion, less light-rail service in dense urban areas where it’s most efficient and fewer transit-oriented development opportunities.
Approving Proposition 1 on the November ballot is one of the boldest, most important and immediate steps we can take to tackle the climate crisis, keep fossil fuels in the ground and move the Puget Sound region beyond oil. It represents an opportunity to vote not just for transit, but also for the future.
If we miss this train, as has happened so many times before, it could be decades before Puget Sound gets another opportunity to build modern, efficient rapid transit.
Michael Brune, of Alameda, Calif., is executive director of the Sierra Club.