Rhododendron Line A Cost-Effective Transit Alternative

DON Davis' Special to The Times (Feb. 14) paints an inaccurate picture of the proposed Rhododendron Line light-rail system proposed for Highway 99. Davis and other Metro officials insist that they are going out of their way to listen to the public through what Mr. Davis generously terms "extensive public input."

Yet, in the case of the Rhododendron Line, Mr. Davis has clearly not listened to this input, as is evidenced by his confusion over some of the basic principles behind the Rhododendron Line proposal.

To set straight some of the confusion evident in Mr. Davis' article:

-- The Rhododendron Line would of course operate on its own reserved right-of-way in the center of Highway 99, not in mixed traffic. Proponents of the line have always advocated that the line operate on a reserved right of way. As is the case with light-rail-transit (LRT) systems in Portland, Sacramento, San Jose, Calgary, and Edmonton, trains would pre-empt signals to speed operation. In some areas, the configuration of Highway 99 would be changed to remove parking lanes; this should not cause undue hardship, given the abundance of off-street parking along Highway 99.

-- The Rhododendron Line would have ample capacity to meet transit ridership demands. Operating on a reserved center median, the line would have the capacity to readily carry 20,000 passengers per hour per direction. As demand warrants, the line's capacity could be readily increased by lengthening trains and increasing service frequencies.

-- The Rhododendron Line would go a long way toward supporting regional land-use goals. It links the major activity centers of downtown Everett, Aurora Village, Green Lake, Woodland Park, Seattle Center, the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, the Kingdome, Boeing Plant 2, Sea-Tac Airport, the Tacoma Dome, and downtown Tacoma.

The official plan is intended to be a guide for future development, not a document written in stone. If an activity center is not mentioned in the official plan, it does not necessarily follow that the center does not merit LRT service. The fact that the Rhododendron Line does not serve Capitol Hill or Northgate does not preclude these destinations being served by future lines.

Rhododendron Line supporters wisely advocate the line as a practice "starter line." Branch lines could be built to connect the Rhododendron Line with key regional destinations located within close proximity of the line, including University of Washington, the Boeing Everett complex and Paine Field, the Northgate, Alderwood and Everett malls and the Mukilteo and Edmonds ferry docks.

-- The Rhododendron Line proposal represents a practical, one-line-at-a-time approach taken by cities throughout North America to light-rail development. Transit systems in each of the communities noted above as well as Dallas, Denver, St. Louis, Buffalo and Baltimore are all taking a pay-as-you-go approach and developing their light-rail systems one line at a time; not one of these communities has chosen to take on billions of dollars of long-term debt to develop light rail. By contrast, the Regional Transit Project (RTP) plan advocated by Mr. Davis proposes that voters give the green light to an extensive 164-mile rail network at the outset. Without a single operating rail line, it's far too early in the game to ask voters to approve funds for an entire network. Citizens appreciate being consulted by government at regular intervals; "trust us" rings hollow without a viable track record.

-- The Rhododendron Line features numerous low-cost at-grade stations unlike the expensive underground or elevated stations located every 1-2 miles along the rail lines proposed in the RTP. More stations mean that more people are within walking distance of light rail and that redevelopment opportunities adjacent to stations will be more abundant.

While Mr. Davis extolls the virtues of LRT, much of the rail transit development proposed in the RTP would be built underground in extremely expensive tunnels. The plan even calls for elevating or tunneling the line under the Duwamish industrial area in South Seattle! Light rail can be built to operate at grade for relatively modest costs ($16-20 million per mile vs. $300 million per mile for LA's underground high-capacity rail). Puget Sound's requirements for light-rail capacity and speed are no more stringent than those of any other U.S. or Canadian light-rail system. Therefore, the RTP's preoccupation with expensive tunnel construction remains a deep dark mystery.

The RTP ignores light rail's strengths and proposes to build a costly BART-type, grade-separated, Cadillac rail network. By contrast, the Rhododendron Line plan lives within our region's financial means.

David Peckarsky is a public transportation consultant and a Snohomish City Planning Commissioner. Anyone desiring a copy to the Rhododendron Line light-rail proposal is invited to write PSLRTS, 9114-236th St. SW, Suite #2, Edmonds, WA 98026 or call (206) 776-3982.