How Commuter Rail on the Eastside
Can Help Fight Global Warming

One of the most effective (and also one of the least expensive and least disruptive) things that the greater Seattle metropolitan area could do to help fight global warming would be to utilize the Eastside railroad as the core of a regional commuter rail system.1

The Reality of Global Warming

The great majority of scientists are now convinced that global warming, also referred to as climate change, is both real and that it could have catastrophic effects on the environment, agriculture, public health, the economy, national security, and even the survival of much of the earth's population.2

Among its adverse effects are raising sea levels (and thus potentially displacing people in coastal areas, where much of the world's population lives), reducing rainfall in some areas (where it is important for growing crops and for generating hydroelectric power), creating more frequent and more violent storms, causing the extinction of numerous species of animals and plants, and expanding the ranges of tropical diseases (particularly those transmitted by insects and bacteria).3

There is also a consensus that global warming is in large part caused by human activity.4 Road transportation is the fastest growing and the second largest (after power plants) source of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Moreover, its role is even greater when the vast consumption of fossil fuel that is required to manufacture ever-increasing numbers of road vehicles and to construct more and more roads and related infrastructure is taken into consideration.5

Many scientists think that it is still possible to stop, or at least slow, the advance of global warming if appropriate action is taken within the next few years.6 However, such action must consist of far more than just the mainly token measures that have been implemented so far. For example, merely reducing the rate of increase in the output of greenhouse gases is insufficient -- it would be necessary to make drastic cuts in the absolute level of output, and by as much as 95 percent according to credible sources.7

Although such adjustment might seem painful, it would be vastly less painful than the alternative. Moreover, there is much that could be done to minimize or eliminate such pain. That is, measures implemented to cut the use of fossil fuel-based road transport could be accompanied by other measures to improve mobility and maintain or enhance the overall quality of life. Moreover, such cuts, if handled well, would result in large additional benefits, including for the environment, for public health, for national security, and even for the economy.

How the Eastside Railroad Could Help Fight Global Warming

The Eastside railroad runs roughly parallel to the I-405 freeway, which, together with its connecting arterials, is the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions on the Eastside (and is also the most congested freeway in the entire state of Washington8). Provision of a passenger service on the Eastside railroad would help fight global warming by:

(1) Encouraging some users of I-405 to reduce their driving.9

(2) Helping to reduce the political pressure to keep widening I-405. Such widening has the effect of encouraging more traffic (and thus usually does little to reduce congestion), thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the widening process itself, including the production and transport of the raw materials, and particularly the concrete, is also a major source of greenhouse gases.10 In addition, the extremely high cost of such widening diverts funds from projects that could slow or reverse greenhouse gas output (and also provide other benefits to society), including improving alternative modes of transportation and implementing measures aimed at reducing trip demand.

(3) Facilitating the imposition and effectiveness of stricter measures aimed at cutting greenhouse gas output from road transport, such as substantially increasing gas taxes (as has long been a standard policy in Europe to discourage driving) and imposing road user charges (which is attracting growing interest in many leading cities, including a few in the U.S.).11

(4) Encouraging population growth to take place in high density clusters around stations rather than in outlying areas with little public transportation. Official projections are for a 40 percent increase in population for the Puget Sound region by the year 2030,12 and much of this will occur on the Eastside. Higher density reduces emissions by encouraging walking, riding bicycles and using transit. It has been shown repeatedly both in the U.S. and abroad that the introduction of rail transit services can provide a powerful stimulus to the development of higher density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods around stations.

(5) Setting an example for the rest of the world to follow. It is common for planners and politicians to look to other cities for examples, and the Eastside could provide an outstanding one -- instead of a bad one. In particular, developing countries often ask why they should be expected to make sacrifices to protect the environment (including protecting forests and endangered species) when wealthy countries refuse to do so. Developing countries represent the most rapidly growing source of greenhouse gases.

Providing a commuter rail service is, of course, not the only way in which the Eastside railroad could help reduce the output of greenhouse gases. For example, were the intended cuts to be as drastic as our best scientists tell us they need to be, another important measure would be to switch some freight from trucks to trains, as the latter are much more energy efficient and also have the capability of being powered by electricity (as is common in Europe and Japan). The Eastside railroad would have sufficient capacity to accommodate a significant amount of the long-distance north-south freight currently passing through the region by truck even if it were used for a fairly intensive commuter service.13

Additional Benefits

Reducing the output of greenhouse gases is not the only benefit that could be attained from providing a passenger service on the Eastside railroad. There are additional advantages that, in fact, would be so great that they would make it worthwhile to provide such a service even if there were no global warming problem. They include:

(1) Reducing trip times, stress and monetary costs for many people. This includes those people who choose to ride transit because of the higher speeds that it offers them. It also includes drivers who would benefit from the reduced congestion, or slower rate of increase in congestion, as a result of other drivers being diverted to trains. In addition, travel time can be made more productive for those who switch to riding trains because of the ability to read, do work, take naps etc. A related benefit is the positive effects on health (both physical and psychological) for those people who would gain the option of being able to walk for part of their journey (i.e., to and/or from stations) instead of having to drive the entire distance.

(2) Improving safety by helping to reduce traffic congestion and by providing a high quality alternative for people with poor driving skills. Congestion both contributes to accidents and adds to the difficulty of rescue efforts following accidents. It also reduces the effectiveness and increases the cost of other emergency services.

(3) Providing a far less costly solution than further freeway widening to move the same volume of passengers. The total direct monetary cost for the currently planned I-405 widening projects for the next 20 years could easily exceed $20 billion. In contrast, the total cost for a substantial upgrading of Eastside railroad to provide large increases in speed and capacity could be accomplished for as little as $200 million (and the initial cost for a three-year pilot service has been projected at less than $10 million14).

(4) Reducing the rate of increase in the incidence of disease and premature death from air pollution by slowing the growth of automobile use. Numerous studies have confirmed that air pollution from road transport, including both exhaust gases and particulate matter, can have severe health effects on people living nearby, including causing or aggravating cancer, heart disease and asthma. Although progress has been made on reducing the output of some toxic substances through the use of catalytic converters, this does not apply to all types of emissions. Also, any such reductions are being largely offset by the increase in the total number of vehicle miles and possibly by increased emissions per vehicle mile due to greater traffic congestion as well.

(5) Reducing dependence on unstable and increasingly expensive foreign oil sources.


The consensus among scientists is that global warming is real, that it could have dire consequences, that it is due in large part to human activity, and that it may be possible to slow down its progression through a drastic reduction in the output of greenhouse gases if action is taken quickly.

The largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions on the Eastside is I-405 and its connecting arterials. Using the parallel Eastside railroad as the core of a commuter rail service would provide a high quality alternative for much of the traffic on I-405, and thus it could be the most important single measure for combating climate change on the Eastside, and likely one of the more important measures for the region as a whole as well. Its effectiveness would be greatly enhanced by coupling it with other measures, such as the imposition of user charges on I-405 and facilitating the development of high density neighborhoods around rail stations.

Even if there were some doubt as to the reality of global warming or as to the ability to slow its progression, there are additional large benefits that even by themselves make a very strong case for utilizing the railroad as the core of a new regional commuter service.

Yet, almost unbelievably, the political leadership of the supposedly enlightened greater Seattle metropolitan area has to date shown virtually no interest in this extremely valuable and irreplaceable asset. Rather, they have been obsessed with pushing -- and now reviving -- an unprecedentedly costly transportation package, the soundly defeated Proposition 1, that, at best, would do little to combat global warming, and would most likely aggravate it.

Worse yet, instead of just practicing benign neglect and temporarily deferring consideration of utilizing the Eastside railroad with its tremendous potential, they have also been obsessed with scrapping it as quickly as possible for use as a bicycle trail (and at a cost to the taxpayers of many tens of millions of dollars) so that it would, most likely, not be available again for decades, if ever, for use in combating global warming.15

1This plan envisions DMU (diesel multiple unit) trains running beyond the approximately 42-mile Eastside railroad over existing tracks to Everett and beyond in the north and to Tacoma and beyond in the south. It also envisions the eventual construction of several branch lines on the Eastside, including through the Overlake corridor to downtown Redmond. See Possible Future Extensions for the Eastside Railroad, Eastside Rail Now!, September 2007.

2See, for example, U.N. panel releases comprehensive research on global warming, San Francisco Chronicle, November 18, 2007, for an overview and the full report at IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. Also see U.N.: Greenhouse gases hit high in 2006, Eliane Engeler, November 23, 2007. For an introduction to the economic effects of global warming, see Global Warming's Toll on the Economy, John Podesta, September 17, 2007.

3For a closer look at how global warming is spreading disease, see Global warming: enough to make you sick, Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2007.

4See, for example, Strongest Evidence Yet Of Human Link To Global Warming, Expert Says, Science Daily, February 5, 2007.

5This includes not only the energy consumed (and thus greenhouse gas emissions) by motor vehicle manufacturing itself, but also that used in the production and transport of raw materials for vehicle production and in the transport of the completed vehicles to their final destinations (e.g., via ocean ships and via trucks) as well as that used in their final disposition (i.e., scrapping, recycling, etc.). Likewise, it includes not only the fossil fuel consumed in the construction of highways, parking lots, gas stations, refineries, etc. but also that used in the procurement (i.e., mining and processing) and transport of the raw materials used in such construction.

6See, for example, Study: Next decade 'crucial' on warming, Science Daily, January 28, 2007.

7For example, the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo has concluded that the world will have to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 in order to have an even chance of avoiding a 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) temperature rise beyond the level of pre-industrial times. Even though this might seem like a small increase in temperature, the researchers expect that it could lead to "...dangerous disruptions to the climate such as ever more droughts, heat waves, floods and rising seas..." In order to attain an 80 percent global reduction, the rich nations, which are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions, would have to slash their emissions by about 95 percent below their 2000 levels, with lesser reductions for the developing countries. See World needs to axe greenhouse gases by 80 pct: report. In the U.S., California appears to be taking a leadership role by setting a goal of reducing emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, as announced in Gov. Schwarzenegger Signs Landmark Legislation to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Office of the Governor, September 27, 2006.

8This is confirmed by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). See, for example, I-405 - Renton To Bellevue Project SR 169 to I-90 in the WSDOT Projects section of the WSDOT web site. I-405 is likely also the most congested freeway in the entire Northwest.

9Those who are pushing to scrap the railroad have argued that such rail service is not necessary to attract drivers because so-called bus rapid transit is being offered on I-405. The fact that such buses can operate at higher speeds than cars for some portions of their journeys because of their use of the carpool lanes is not sufficient to compensate for all of the other objections that many people have to riding buses.

The switching of some people from driving to riding trains could cut emissions not only by reducing number of vehicles in operation but also by lessening the start-and-stop nature of driving and by allowing vehicles to operate closer to their most fuel-efficient speeds. Although the relationship between traffic congestion and emissions is a complex one, in part because there are major differences in the outputs of different types of emissions as a function of speed, there are indications that emissions are minimized at speeds that are both steady and maximize fuel efficiency.

10Freeway widening projects require large amounts of concrete, mainly for the pavement and reconstruction of bridges. And concrete production is very energy-intensive and a major source of carbon dioxide. See Cement Industry Is at Center of global warming Debate, New York Times, October 26, 2007.

11It is obvious that the better the alternatives available, the smaller the road user charges will need to be to reduce road traffic by a certain volume and the less will be the opposition to their implementation.

12And the number of miles traveled is projected to increase by more than 40 percent by the same year. See, for example, Sound Transit Board proposes rail expansions, Sound Transit, January 11, 2007.

13A major reason for the development of I-405 has been as a bypass for the I-5 freeway through Seattle for use by long distance traffic, including long distance trucks. It is relatively economical to convert long distance truck shipments to rail because of the high labor costs of long distance trucking and the fact that the costs of transfer of the containers to and from the rail cars can be spread over more miles. The ability of the Eastside railroad to accommodate a substantial amount of new freight traffic is due to the fact that it currently is lightly used and thus has a great deal of excess capacity, in contrast to Burlington Northern's heavily used line through Seattle.

14See Request for Funding in Sound Transit's 2008 Budget for a Three Year Pilot Commuter Service on the Eastside Railroad, Eastside Rail Now!, October 2007.

15Despite the supposed guarantees of the Rails-to-Trails Act, which the proponents of scrapping the Eastside railroad have said they intend to apply to its right of way, there have been virtually no instances of success in reinstalling railroads on rights of way to which that Act has been applied. Moreover, some opponents of the railroad have actually stated that they do not want to see the right of way ever again used for a railroad. A typical attitude is that of King Cushman, staff project manager for the Puget Sound Regional Council's costly and now discredited BNSF Corridor Preservation Study, whose main purpose was apparently to justify scrapping the railroad. Cushman told Eastside Rail Now! that he does not think it would ever be appropriate to use the Eastside railroad right of way for transit, and instead proposes an elevated transit route over the I-405 freeway that would cost several hundred million dollars per mile in today's dollars but which would be constructed decades in the future. Cushman also admitted that it is extremely difficult to convert a trail back into a railroad despite the supposed guarantees of the Rails-to-Trails Act.

Incidentally, the main body (and perhaps the rest as well) of the voluminous (37MB) PSRC report, the stated purpose of which was to determine the future use(s) for the railroad, which is potentially one of the most valuable transportation assets in the entire region, failed to mention any of the terms global warming, climate change or greenhouse gas even once!

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This page created February 18, 2007. Updated November 26, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 Eastside Rail Now! All Rights Reserved.