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Sunday, March 5, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Special Report / Regional Transit Plan -- Late For The Train -- Why Seattle Has Always Let Commuter Rail Pass It By

It seemed promising enough in the beginning. It was 1904. The tiny City of West Seattle, population 1,539, laid some tracks and became the first city in America to own and operate its own street-level commuter railroad.

Nobody said it then, but the steep, harrowing ride from a ferry terminal on the Duwamish River uphill to West Seattle was a landmark advance in a relatively new concept - government-run mass transit.

But even with that heady start, and 90 years of transit activism and government planning since, Seattle and its suburbs are left today as the only big city on the West Coast and one of the few major cities in the country without commuter rail.

What happened? Certainly the region has had its trains. There were the famous, privately owned "interurban" trains that ran at high speeds from Bellingham to Tacoma in the 1920s and '30s. And Seattle owned a well-regarded but financially strapped streetcar system that was dismantled in 1941.

More recently, Seattle and the booming suburbs have jointly operated a massive bus system that is considered one of the nation's most successful.

But as Puget Sound residents consider whether to build a rail system for $6.7 billion, the questions of how and why the region arrived at this point hang over the March 14 election.

How could Puget Sound grow to 2 million people without adding a rail transit system? Why did government aggressively build new highways even as it acknowledged they would become hopelessly clogged? Why did the area sprawl so much, to the point that housing densities are lower here than in Los Angeles, a reality that makes any mass transit inefficient?

The short answer is: We wanted it this way.

In fact, for nearly a century, one civic thinker after another has asked residents here for the permission and the money to build everything from subways to elevated trains to street rail to bullet trains.

For three generations, the voters have said no. It's too expensive. We don't want to be like New York. We want to stay small. We're independent. And we like the freedom of driving a car.

Indeed the region's public transportation story is a little like a contrarian version of the children's tale, "The Little Engine That Could."

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can . . . but, now that you've come up with a plan, I think I won't.

"Monument to socialism"

Rail foe Vick Gould never got very far as a politician, but the one-time candidate for governor may have understood people around here better than some civic leaders.

It was 1968. The region was booming. Nobody knew that massive layoffs at Boeing were coming in two years. It was a time of "euphoric optimism," says Jim Ellis, a Seattle attorney.

Seizing on that climate, Ellis and a committee of Seattle's business and social elite put before voters what is still the most ambitious and expensive series of civic improvements ever attempted: from the Kingdome to the Seattle Aquarium to Redmond's Velodrome to a series of pools, parks, community centers and new roads.

Topping the list was $1.3 billion to bring commuter rail to Seattle and Bellevue on 45 miles of track, about one-third of it underground. Nearly $900 million of that $1.3 billion would come from the federal government, an extraordinary subsidy by today's standards.

But Gould, a real-estate broker from Texas who would run as an independent for governor in 1972, saw something more insidious about commuter rail than the high price tag. He called it the "greatest conceivable monument to socialism offered our community," adding that mass transit was an effort by "power seekers" to take "complete control of your life, your money, your property, your rights."

Rail was an affront to the way you live, Gould told voters. It seeks to tax you, remove you from where you want to be - your car - and put you on a train - a train that might disrupt your community.

The argument was dismissed as reactionary by Seattle's civic leaders.

But two weeks later, voters rejected the rail plan, giving it 51 percent of the vote, 9 percent shy of the 60 percent needed to approve the bonds. It won in parts of Seattle and Mercer Island, but was strongly turned down by many of the suburbs, especially in South King County.

On the same day, voters approved seven other tax measures totaling $300 million, including $40 million for the Kingdome and $81 million for new highways.

In 1970, voters said no to rail again. This time it received a 46 percent yes vote.

An anti-city sentiment

Al Leland remembers both campaigns well. He was a legislator from Kirkland at the time. To this day, he says, backers of rail don't understand what those "no" votes were all about.

He says the same anti-city forces that resonated through those votes have caused Seattle's population to shrink in the past 40 years, while King County suburbs have quadrupled to more than 1 million people.

"It's not that people thought we didn't need any mass transit," Leland said. "But they knew (rail) was a conscious effort by Seattle leadership to shut down the malls and get people back into downtown Seattle.

"It was Seattle versus the Eastside, and people didn't want to be in Seattle. Everyone was coming to the suburbs.

"Plus, there's an awful lot of people around here in love with their automobiles."

A history of voting "no"

Seattle voters had the habit of rejecting public-transportation plans long before cars came to dominate daily life.

Voters as far back as 1912 turned down a rail system designed by planner Virgil Bogue that would have included 39 miles of subways, 27 miles of elevated trains, scores more miles of surface-level streetcars and a 5-mile-long transit tunnel running from Yarrow Point near Bellevue underneath Lake Washington and into downtown Seattle.

Voters did let the city buy a streetcar system in 1918. By the mid-1930s it boasted 400 cars on more than 200 miles of track. But more than 50 years then passed, until the Metro bus system was created in 1972, before the region again said yes to any measure related to public transportation.

Voters refused to finance a trolley system. They twice wouldn't give Metro permission to plan a mass-transit system. They twice refused to bail out the city's bus system.

And then, in 1968 and 1970, they turned down the rapid rail and bus system that was to be two-thirds financed by the federal government.

Congress did spend that $900 million earmarked for Seattle. It helped finance a train system in Atlanta called MARTA.

Symbol of the big city

Walt Crowley, an unabashed rail supporter who wrote a history of transportation for Metro in 1993, says Seattle has always had a populist streak that doesn't trust authority. It's harder to "close the sale" for an expensive commuter-rail project here than it might be in other cities, he says.

What's more, public-transportation debates always seem to be about something else, Crowley says. Transit advocates talk about ridership or peak-hour commutes, but voters think about keeping neighborhoods residential or preserving a lifestyle.

The specter that rail lines might destroy neighborhoods by attracting high-rise apartments was tangible in the elections of 1968 and 1970, says David Lefebvre, a retired Boeing engineer from Lake City.

"There's a definite fear of something as big and mechanized as trains," he said. "For some people it conjures up mental images of the Chicago El and people living in hovels with the trains roaring by, rattling the windows."

The incentives in favor of cars and against mass transit are as strong now as they were in the '60s and '70s, says Chip Bishop of the American Public Transit Association. Adjusted for inflation, gas is essentially as cheap as it was in 1970. Parking is widespread and either inexpensive or free. Use of public transit has declined dramatically since World War II: Metro buses carried only half as many riders last year as the old Seattle Transit bus and trolley system 50 years ago, even though the region now has twice the population.

Even if presented with a convenient bus or train, Seattleites have such a small-town mentality that it may not occur to them to use public transit, said Theron Haynie, a retired Boeing engineer who voted against both the 1968 and 1970 rail plans.

"People are pretty well satisfied with the lifestyle we have here," Haynie said. "Nobody could actually see themselves using the train in 1970. There was a hope that other people would ride it, but that's about it."

Has traffic gotten bad enough?

And that's what it has come to in 1995, rail backers say: a metropolitan area struggling daily with its dependence on cars and roads.

The traffic jams remind Jim Ellis of another debilitating civic problem 40 years ago, when Lake Washington was festering with sewage and algae and "it got so bad that people finally said, `I don't care what it costs, I'm going to do something about it.' "

Voters approved creation of Metro in 1958 to clean the lake by building a new sewer line around it. The question now, transit experts say, is whether voters are willing to pay billions for a commuting technology last seen around here in 1941.

"For the first time we're really coming to grips with what it has meant to cast our lot with the automobile," said Bishop of the transit association. "All the traffic jams, the pollution, the enormous expense.

"As a result we're increasingly turning back to the kinds of transit we had before the war, like rail.

"It's a little like going back to the future."

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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