September 30, 2007
People keep asking us why (or whether) we are opposed to light rail. The answer is that we are not opposed to it at all. Actually, we are very much in favor of it as a key component of a balanced transportation system, at least where it is justified on the basis of rational criteria (i.e., the total benefits exceed the total costs).
We are, however, opposed to East Link (i.e., Sound Transit's proposed light rail line from Seattle to Bellevue), because it does not, as proposed, conform to such criteria. The costs are enormous, at $3.9 billion just for the initial approximately 12 mile segment from Seattle to somewhere in the Overlake corridor (a whopping $325 million a mile!).
Moreover, this figure does not include the usual cost overruns, damage to long-established residential neighborhoods south of downtown Bellevue, etc. And it is in sharp contrast to the estimated $200 million that it would cost to upgrade the entire 45 mile Eastside railroad. At the same time, the benefits of East Link are likely far less than the costs, particularly the fact that it might not add much to total corridor capacity and speed (or even reduce them, according to some sources) because of the I-90 bridge problem and the line's somewhat circuitous routing.
The situation with regard to North Link (from Seattle to the UW and eventually to Northgate and beyond) is very different. While costly due to the extensive tunneling required, this light rail line will provide a huge increase in corridor capacity and likely in speed as well (as I-5 becomes increasingly congested). It will also serve as an alternative north-south trunk route in the event that severe damage were to occur to the I-5 Ship Canal bridge or other parts of that freeway due to an earthquake, etc. In contrast, East Link would have no such security benefit; rather, it could actually become a security liability, because the very substantial added weight of the rails and trains could weaken the I-90 floating bridge and make it more vulnerable to severe winter storms, sabotage, etc.
We are not proposing that the Eastside railroad should be converted to light rail at any time in the near future. This is not because of any bias against light rail. Rather, it is because diesel-powered commuter rail service could be implemented at a far lower cost due to the fact that no costly electrification would be required, as is necessary for light rail. This service would most likely be provided by DMUs (diesel multiple units), which have undergone tremendous technological advances in the past few years and now feature very low levels of emissions, high fuel efficiency, large passenger capacity and low audible noise output.
The Eastside railroad will likely become a good candidate for electrification at some date in the future as the volume of passenger traffic and the frequency of service increase due to population growth, higher densities near stations, rising gas prices, etc. However, it might be most appropriate that it be operated as an electrified conventional railroad (such as is common on the East Coast as well as in Europe and Japan) rather than as a conventional and exclusive light rail line because of its importance for regional freight mobility.
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