IN the 1890s, streetcars rumbled along the cobble-stone streets of Seattle, then a bustling western outpost. Today, as the futuristic Space Needle casts its shadow over those same now-traffic-jammed streets, area voters are considering a move to bring a retooled version of streetcars - a light-rail system - to a city bursting with 20th-century congestion.
Advocates say the $6.7 billion public transportation program would help untangle traffic snarls and protect the region's environment by containing urban sprawl. Opponents contend that the plan would be too costly and ultimately ineffective.
Nationwide, cities are considering light-rail systems like Seattle's as antidotes to growing populations, pollution, and traffic jams. But garnering political support for such projects can be contentious.
Supporters in Seattle cite the impending population boom as the greatest imperative for a light-rail system. ``We already have the fourth worst traffic congestion in America,'' says a statement by supporters, including former Washington Gov. Dan Evans. ``With another 1.4 million people expected by 2020, traffic will only get worse.''
Opponents agree that traffic congestion threatens the region's economic quality of life, but they argue that a light-rail system is too costly and will not solve the problem. ``We're a 21st-century world. Do not shackle us with a 19th-century method of solving our problems,'' says Kris Wilder, campaign coordinator for Families Against Congestion and Taxes, the main group opposing the measure.
Seattle's light-rail debate partly breaks down along urban and suburban lines. Suburbanites decry being taxed for a system that will provide them with only limited service. Everett - a nearby town - would, for example, have to wait for a ``phase II'' addition before seeing the light-rail system, likely a decade away.
Critics add that light rail is ill-suited for suburban transportation needs. Under the proposed system, Wilder says his wife would have to take two buses and a train to get to her job across town. Furthermore, ``Only one in five trips these days is work-related,'' he says. Ford Motor Company ``is making a pile of money with the Windstar van. There's a reason for that,'' he adds.
Critics also cite trends such as telecommuting - using phones and computers to work at home - and the location of more and more jobs in suburbs to bolster light-rail opposition.
Proponents acknowledge that rail transit will capture only a small fraction - perhaps 2 percent - of current auto commuters. Most riders will be current bus users whose service would be greatly improved by the plan. And supporters are banking on voters' desire for transportation improvements to spur passage. They also have powerful allies: Many businesses have lined up in support of the plan, including Boeing, Weyerhaeuser, and Microsoft.
Mark Funk, a campaign organizer with Citizens for Sound Transportation, says recent surveys cause him to be ``cautiously optimistic'' that the plan will pass.
The Puget Sound region has considered the issue since the late 1960s but has approved no major plan.
$100 a year per family
Opponents are focusing on the cost issue to stir up votes on their side. They say that financing the $6.7 billion plan over 16 years would require area families to pay an average of $100 a year in higher sales and automobile excise taxes.
This figure, however, assumes that state and federal governments will kick in $3 for every $5 from local sources - a dicey assumption since an unpopular tax hike might be required to cover state contributions; and lawmakers from eastern Washington may balk at subsidizing the western-Washington project.
Seattle voters, while generally favoring the plan, face a list of other spending needs and have just agreed to finance $330 million in school upgrades. And both sides agree that $325 million in federal funds earmarked for Puget Sound transportation cannot be counted on.
If voters here reject the plan, the region will have to find other solutions. Wilder says a ``quiltwork'' approach should be studied, with other options including subsidies for carpooling and improving bus service.
One idea favored by many economists, ``congestion pricing'' for motorists, would have drivers on busy roads pay tolls that go up at peak travel times, but politically, this is a tough sell.
Lanes on some highways currently reserved for ``high-occupancy vehicles'' also could be expanded.
But supporters of the light-rail system say only a holistic approach will work. The new light-rail system would go alongside existing roads and use tunnels in a few areas. Traffic signals would be timed so the rail cars have priority without significantly disrupting traffic, supporters say. Few current car lanes would be sacrificed.
Many cities that have added light rail have found ridership to be much lower than expected. But Funk says ``we clearly learned the lessons of the past'' in devising the current plan. He says overly optimistic ridership estimates were in vogue back when federal subsidies would pay for as much as 80 percent of a new system.