Who's in the fight against light rail

STARTED BY longtime foes of light rail, Sane Transit has grown to include a wide spectrum of members. Some say it could kill plans for an urban rail system.

It was an unusual alliance of civic leaders that stepped forward last month to question Seattle's planned light-rail system.

Liberals, conservatives, anti-rail activists, pro-transit folks, environmentalists and business people came together to pronounce that the region's Sound Transit rail project's costs were out of control. Calling themselves Sane Transit, they asked that the public agency not accept $500 million requested from the federal government until an audit was conducted.

The leaders of the new alliance - who sponsored a forum on light-rail costs last week - say their coalition was formed through conversations among soccer buddies and folks talking on the phone and via e-mail about their concerns over the costs of transportation.

But the coalition's core members have been fighting the rail project since it was proposed in the early 1990s. Many of the group's arguments and consultants are the same as those used by developers who have long sought roads rather than light rail. And the coalition is linked to national rail critics who helped kill a light-rail proposal in San Antonio by raising the same questions at crucial times.

Today, those rail critics have repackaged their arguments and created a more broad-based group of people - some of whom support mass transit - who share concerns about the light-rail project's cost and feasibility.

So far the coalition has failed to delay funding for the light-rail project. But rail supporters say this new coalition could forever dash the region's plans for an urban rail system and alter how the Seattle area grows and copes with congestion in the future.

Sane Transit was started primarily by Emory Bundy and Rob McKenna, critics of the rail project when it was put to voters in 1995 and 1996.

Bundy is a noted environmentalist and retired KING Broadcasting executive popular among Seattle's liberal elite. He believes light rail is a waste of money, putting him at odds with environmental groups that believe it will help concentrate growth in cities and protect rural areas from sprawl.

McKenna, a Republican lawyer from Bellevue on the Metropolitan King County Council, is particularly worried that light rail will be so expensive it will use money reserved for Eastside transportation projects. He has been supported by suburban developers who have long opposed the rail system and pushed for more roads.

McKenna and Bundy kept in touch after the 1996 election, when voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties approved the $3.9 billion Regional Transit Authority, now called Sound Transit.

The average family has since paid over $100 a year in taxes toward building a transit system, including a 21-mile light-rail line from SeaTac through central Seattle to the University District. Construction is to begin in spring.

McKenna serves on Sound Transit's governing board, and while he opposes the rail project, he has long championed bus service. This summer, as a federal funding agreement crucial to the project approached, Bundy and McKenna began lining up friends, associates and various rail critics.

Bundy said the coalition originated with conversations he had with buddies on his soccer team.

"Some of us were car-pooling to a summer match, and one of them says, `Emory, what are you going to do about that rail project?' " Bundy said. "To my amazement, everybody in the car was upset about it."

Next, Citizens for Mobility

Bundy and a circle of associates who favor alternative transportation technologies have lobbied against rail for years. That circle includes Don Padelford, whose family owned the Frederick & Nelson property in Seattle; former legislator Dick Nelson and Jerry Schneider, a University of Washington professor emeritus who, like Bundy, favors futuristic, tramlike vehicles over light rail.

Calling themselves Citizens for Mobility, they filed a lawsuit against the rail project and became early members of Sane Transit.

McKenna distances himself from Citizens for Mobility, and said Sane Transit was created to include transit supporters as well.

As Bundy tells the story, Sane Transit gained momentum after he published an article critical of the rail project in this summer's edition of Open Spaces, an Oregon-based environmental journal.

A friend - entrepreneur and Democrat Jarlath Hume - paid to send 1,000 copies of the $10 journal to the media, elected officials and others. It was accompanied by a cover letter signed by 13 people, including Bundy's former bosses, KING Broadcasting heirs Dorothy Bullitt and Priscilla Bullitt Collins.

Also on the list were McKenna, Hume, Padelford and Dan Dingfield, a former Port of Seattle executive close to Seattle Mayor Paul Schell. Schell, who didn't sign the letter, was critical of light rail early in his term but lately has said he supports the project. All but Schell and Collins are in the coalition.

The article also caught the attention of a college pal of Bundy's, former Gov. Booth Gardner, who joined.

Simultaneously, McKenna and Bundy were holding meetings with other rail critics. They received technical advice and help writing a manifesto from Seattle transportation consultant Bill Eager, a vehement rail critic.

Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman Jr., who funded much of the anti-rail campaigning in the 1990s, hired Eager in 1998 to write a study that concluded rail was a waste of money, and more highway lanes were what the region needed. Eager said he's still being paid by Freeman to work on the issue.

Sane Transit's manifesto includes statements made by Eager and Freeman in their quest to build more roads, including the argument that the region should study alternatives before spending money on the rail project.

Freeman supported McKenna's first council campaign in 1995. In 1998, McKenna arranged for Freeman to present Eager's study to the council, but it went nowhere.

Freeman said he's not involved with Sane Transit but is sympathetic.

"This isn't my doing," he said. "I didn't create this. I'm just now getting to meet them."

He said he's concerned that if he were to get involved, he could jeopardize the group by galvanizing people who oppose his perspective. "I don't want to poison the deal for them," he said.

At least four members of Sane Transit worked with Freeman to oppose rail - Eager, McKenna and transportation consultants James MacIsaac and Hil Hornung.

Hornung, a transportation consultant, worked on a Freeman-funded political-action committee called Families Against Congestion and Taxes that helped defeat the transit project in 1995.

After that loss, the project was scaled back and put to voters again in 1996. It was approved by 60 percent of voters in King County (70 percent in Seattle), 53 percent in Snohomish County and just over 50 percent in Pierce County.

Enter Maggi Fimia

Sane Transit evolved last June when County Councilwoman Maggi Fimia joined. With Fimia, a Shoreline Democrat, it got a designated spokeswoman who could personify the image presented when it went public last month.

An ardent transit supporter, Fimia has become increasingly concerned that light-rail costs are going over budget and may threaten bus funding. She says she doesn't want to kill the project, only to be sure it's not a boondoggle.

Fimia has also become an ally of McKenna's on several issues over the last year. On Sept. 11, she crossed party lines and voted with him to defeat County Executive Ron Sims' tax proposal to help Sound Transit extend light rail to Northgate.

Fimia said Sims' tax proposal was the turning point for her.

"I said, `Oh, my God, this is Los Angeles all over again,' where the regular bus system was put into jeopardy, marginalized, fares were raised, in order to do the tunnel down there," she said. "I'm paying attention. I'm not just assuming that because it's transit it's a good investment."

Once on board, Fimia helped recruit Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, who voted for the rail system but grew skeptical after reading Bundy's Open Spaces article. Steinbrueck got into a loop that was circulating e-mails and having conversations about Sound Transit's potential cost overruns and the soaring price of tunnels in Los Angeles and Boston.

"I, for one, am concerned about funds being drained from transit in favor of Sound Transit," he said.

The group emerged Sept. 6, two days before the Federal Transit Administration asked Congress to spend $500 million on Seattle's rail system. Led by Fimia, it held a news conference demanding that funding be delayed.

Sane Transit alleges rail costs are out of control. Its manifesto said "alarming new developments in the Sound Transit Link light-rail project have caused each of us to conclude that our region should consider putting this project on hold until it has survived closer scrutiny in the form of an independent audit."

Sound Transit refused, saying it has been repeatedly audited.

`This is about killing light rail'

Delaying the funding could irreparably harm the project, said Mike Vaska, a Seattle lawyer who campaigned for Sound Transit and in 1999 analyzed its feasibility for the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

"If we don't get our full-funding grant agreement this year, we will move to the back of the line, and other cities like Minneapolis and Salt Lake will move ahead of us and grab maybe not all, but most of our money," he said.

Vaska works for Foster Pepper & Shefelman, a law firm retained by Sound Transit, but he said he's not working for the agency.

Vaska said Sane Transit wants more than just an audit: "This is about killing light rail, there's no question about that. They don't care about the federal funding, because they believe light rail is wrong."

Sane Transit is using the same approach that helped defeat San Antonio's light-rail project. As voting on the measure began, the Texas Public Policy Foundation released a report alleging costs would be higher than projected, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

The author of that report, former Los Angeles transit administrator Thomas Rubin, has worked with Bundy and appeared with MacIsaac at a forum last week called by Sane Transit leaders to present their criticisms of Sound Transit.

Bundy denies that Sane Transit is trying to kill rail. But given a choice between roads and rail, he said he'd rather see more roads.

"I feel like I'm caught between the Nazis and the Soviets, where you've got two behemoths and they're both bad choices," he said.

Until newer technologies develop, Bundy wants the region to pursue less-expensive programs such as free buses and van pools. He contends such baby steps toward reducing congestion add up to a better solution than light rail.

That "least-cost" approach intrigues Alan Durning, director of Seattle's Northwest Environment Watch research center. He worked with Bundy on the theory and joined Sane Transit, though he doesn't usually align himself with conservatives like McKenna.

"I do think there are better alternatives, therefore I don't think it would be a tragedy if the thing died in the process of financial scrutiny," he said. "But I'm not in this to kill the rail system."

Nick Licata joins Sane Transit

Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata was receiving Bundy's e-mails for a year. But it was the involvement of environmentalists such as Durning that convinced him to join, even though some members were on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

"Certainly Emory and a number of folks are opposed to light rail per se," Licata said. "I am not. I voted for Sound Transit. I want to see it succeed. But I don't want to see it cripple our transportation system."

McKenna said his goal is to "protect the rest of the Sound Transit from `massive overruns' that could affect other portions of the system.

"This is not about Tim Eyman, it's not about roads versus transit, it's about what the best transit investment is," McKenna said.

Eyman is the sponsor of Initiative 745, the measure on the November ballot that would require the Legislature to adopt laws requiring 90 percent of transportation funds be spent on roads. Eyman is not a member of Sane Transit.

Fimia also said Sane Transit isn't out to kill the rail project. But she acknowledged its input from Freeman's consultants and said that perhaps she and others were wrong to dismiss his criticisms of Sound Transit. "We probably should have been paying closer attention and getting those answers back then," she said. "It's not too late to get those answers now."

Seattle Times staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.


Sound Transit

vs. Sane Transit:

Telling them apart

Sound Transit: In 1996, voters in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties approved the $3.9 billion Regional Transit Authority, now called Sound Transit, to improve transportation in the area.

The public agency is adding commuter-rail trains, express buses and the 21-mile light-rail line from SeaTac through central Seattle to the University District.

Express bus service began last year, commuter rail service from Tacoma to Seattle began Sept. 18, and light-rail construction begins next spring, with service starting in 2006.

Sound Transit is governed by a board of 18 members, 17 of them local elected officials. The members are appointed by the county executive of each county and confirmed by the county councils. The state Transportation Department secretary also serves on the board.

Its Web site is www.soundtransit.org.

Sane Transit: A group that first went public in September at a news conference, where it called for an audit of Sound Transit before the public agency accepted $500 million requested from the federal government for the light-rail project.

Sane Transit says the light-rail project is over budget and won't reduce congestion and that Sound Transit is hiding information from the public.

The group includes about 100 activists and civic leaders.

On its Web page (www.sanetransit.org), Sane Transit says, "Rather than evaluating solutions that could begin to help today, the core of Sound Transit's work has been the creation of a light-rail system. Seattle needs real solutions, right now. Elaborate plans for the next decade don't help."

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