Mass transit plan makes waves in Seattle ecotopia

In one of the nation's greenest cities, a mass transit proposal has green voters divided.

Whether you're talking about its lush, rain-drenched lawns or its pro-earth policies, Seattle ranks among the greenest of American cities. But to experience the beauty of the Emerald City, a gas-guzzling, air-polluting car is pretty much the only way to see it.

In contrast to every other West Coast metropolis, the Seattle region lacks a major mass-transit system other than buses. There's no subway or extensive light-rail or even a trolley car system. And self-described environmentalists like homemaker Stacie Anderson want to keep it that way.

Mass transit would "decrease choices" and pollute the air, says Ms. Anderson, who plans to vote against a multi-billion-dollar roads-and-mass-transit measure on a regional ballot Tuesday. "The congestion relief they promise won't happen," she says.

Anderson's opposition – shared by the local Sierra Club, but for different reasons – may seem counterintuitive in a country where mass transit has long been seen as the best cure for both congestion and environmental woes.

But here, where global warming is universally accepted and residents like Anderson can quote numbers about the "carbon footprint" of the proposed light-rail system, there's no agreement about what's best for the earth. Or, for that matter, what's best for the millions of motorists routinely stuck in traffic on a notoriously convoluted freeway system.

The proposition on Tuesday's ballot attempts a Solomonic solution to Seattle's traffic woes, raising already-high sales taxes to fund a combination of new roads and mass transit, including a light-rail system. The cost is estimated to reach $47 billion over the next half century.

The contentious ballot measure has spawned three camps – those who don't want new roads, those who don't want new mass transit, and a third group that just wants something done already.

Blame the multiplicity of viewpoints on Seattle's high levels of education, commitment to debate, and large numbers of engineers, says David Brewster, publisher of Crosscut, a daily online newspaper.

"You've got voters who are cantankerous, contentious, and think they can design a better transportation system because they did it last night in their garage," he says.

There's general agreement the Seattle region has a crisis on its hands. Commutes are long, and traffic jams are common. "You have so much water, which makes it beautiful, but it just creates a transportation nightmare," says Dave Gering, executive director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle. "Because of all the water, you're overcoming all these physical hurdles to get across town."

The traffic woes and ensuing pollution are especially vexing here because of the region's commitment to the environment. The city of Seattle has its own Office of Sustainability and Environment, and Mayor Greg Nickels has been a major voice in favor of American cities stepping in where the federal government leaves off in fighting global warming. Just last week, he played host to 100 mayors at a conference devoted to the environment; the city paid to offset the carbon pollution created by the attendees as they traveled to the Northwest.

For some critics, like local resident Anderson, roads are the answer, not mass transit. There are indications, she says, that the proposed light-rail system would pollute the air both through its construction and its use. She insists it's wiser to simply build roads that people – particularly families in outlying areas – would prefer to use in the first place.

"If you're trying to use mass transit with a lot of groceries or kids, it doesn't work," says Anderson, while eating lunch downtown not far from a restaurant boasting a quintessential Seattle combo, pizza and espresso.

Others, like the Sierra Club, oppose the ballot measure for precisely the opposite reason – because it includes funding for more roads.

"They give us no reason to build new roads," says J.B. Dickey while standing in his downtown store, the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, on one of the city's many hills. They'll become congested as soon as they're built, he says.

The ballot measure has plenty of high-profile supporters, including the governor and several environmental groups. A University of Washington poll conducted in late October suggests that voter support for the measure is evenly divided.

If the measure fails, the various sides may find it impossible to work together again, says newspaper publisher Mr. Brewster, who supports it. "That really haunts this election," he says. "Do we work five years, get all of the players at the table and produce something that has a lot of warts on it and is a compromise, then throw all that out and start over again?"

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