January 9, 2008
The most powerful elected official in the region was interviewed on KUOW about the fate of one of the most important transportation assets in the region.
It was a strange interview. It was strange because that official, King County Executive Ron Sims, managed to say virtually nothing of consequence despite the great importance of the topic and the considerable time available. It was even stranger because his statements contained numerous and serious errors.
Among the Executive's truly bizarre statements was:
It is Burlington Northern Santa Fe, so it's in very, very poor shape. The Puget Sound Regional Council says it's also in very, very poor shape.
This is both factually incorrect and very misleading. "Very, very poor shape" implies that the track is barely passable and is subject to frequent derailments, even at speeds as low as five or ten miles per hour. The track is, in fact, in generally fair to good condition, and is typical of a secondary main line. It is being used regularly by Boeing to ship its valuable 737 fuselages without problems, it was used for double stack container trains during 2007, and it was used by the dinner train until that train was unnecessarily forced to terminate its operation. Also, the Puget Sound Regional Council's BNSF Corridor Preservation Study, despite all of its problems, did not claim that the track was in "very, very poor shape."
The statement is misleading because it implies that the track is useless because of its supposedly terrible condition. However, even the worst of track can be upgraded, and usually at a relatively modest cost -- a cost far lower than that of first removing the track and then putting in new track at some later date, and a cost only a tiny fraction of that for the ultra-expensive new light rail lines that the Executive has been pushing to build.
Later in the interview the Executive made the even more bizarre statement:
It can't be a two way corridor, and so there's some challenges trying to figure. And the only way you can make it a two way corridor is actually begin to do some condemnation of adjacent properties..."
This statement displays an astonishing ignorance of even the most basic fundamentals of rail transportation. Although some sections of the corridor might only be wide enough for a single track, this is absolutely no obstacle to operating a high quality commuter rail service -- and one that runs in both directions. In fact, most railway lines in the U.S. and throughout the world, including many commuter rail lines, are single tracked. They operate in both directions by using strategically located passing sidings, which already exist on the Eastside railroad.
The Executive completely evaded answering the excellent question asked by a caller regarding his justification for replacing the track with a bicycle trail on the sections of the railroad that are already paralleled by trails. Amazingly, these are the two sections that the Executive wants to purchase from the Port of Seattle for scrapping and replacement by bicycle trails, now that he has been defeated in his original plan to acquire the entire railroad for scrapping.
The Executive droned on and on with flimsy excuses as to why it is so necessary to replace the railroad with bicycle trails, while conveniently forgetting to mention that the region already has more miles of bicycle trails than almost any other urban area in the U.S. But he failed to mention even once the far more urgent topics of global warming and severe traffic congestion on the parallel I-405, despite the fact that he has for years been a leading advocate of spending tens of billions of dollars on entirely new and vastly more expensive light rail lines supposedly to fight those same problems.
In fact, the Executive claimed to be so concerned about the environment that he jeopardized the years of hard work by his colleagues by coming out strongly against Proposition 1 just weeks before the November 2007 election. The question remains as to why he did not instead begin working with them from an earlier stage to improve that package and thereby avoid a great deal of wasted expenditure and years of squandered opportunity. It has been widely suggested that his sudden switch was less about his proclaimed environmental enlightenment than it was about self-serving opportunism, regardless of the consequences. Although our local tradition of Nordic reserve and politeness prevents his colleagues from saying so in public, it is likely that their feelings for him will never again be the same.
This view that the Executive has little genuine concern for the environment and the taxpayers is further evidenced by, among other things, his stubborn obsession with scrapping the Eastside railroad, regardless of the resulting damage to the Eastside and to the region as a whole. If he were truly so concerned about the environment and fiscal responsibility, he would have reversed his position about the railroad just as he did regarding Proposition 1. Instead, he has remained the dominant advocate for a policy aimed at destroying one of the Eastside's biggest and most cost-effective weapons in fighting global warming, traffic congestion, sprawl and various other problems.
On the basis of his demonstrated lack of understanding of even the most basic of transportation concepts, his apparent lack of genuine concern about the environment, and his unwillingness to be straightforward with his colleagues and the public, some may ask whether Ron Sims is really worth the $165,000 or more that he is paid for his current position. We will not address that issue here. May it suffice to say that it is becoming obvious to a rapidly growing segment of the population that he is totally unqualified to serve in any position with any responsibility for transportation or environmental protection after he finishes his current term in office.
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