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Monday, March 6, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Long Road To Opposition -- Kemper Freeman Jr. Vs. The Rta

BELLEVUE - Fighting the rail barons and promoting highways is a Freeman family tradition.

First there was Miller Freeman, who took on the railroad companies in his successful 1913 campaign for the state Legislature.

He helped to bring about construction of a farm-to-market road that crossed the Cascades, broke the railroads' transportation monopoly and weakened their extraordinary power in Olympia. He later lobbied for construction of what became the Interstate 90 bridge across Lake Washington.

Then there was his son, Kemper, who lobbied for a second floating bridge and opposed the Forward Thrust rapid-transit proposals of 1968 and 1970.

Now Miller Freeman's grandson, Kemper Freeman Jr., is a leading opponent of a $6.7 billion plan to put commuters on trains. Like his father and grandfather, he says taxpayers would do better to invest their money in road improvements - above all, widening I-405.

Kemper Freeman Jr. is the man rail proponents love to hate.

The businessman who turned Bellevue Square into the Northwest's premier shopping mall is working hard to kill the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) plan that goes before voters March 14.

Freeman, one of the first members of the Transportation Discussion Group that first analyzed and then opposed the idea of regional rail, has mobilized much of the Eastside business community against the transit plan. He has debated rail advocates, lobbied state legislators and emerged as a top contributor to and most visible symbol of the opposition campaign.

A political conservative who once served in the state Legislature, Freeman is the most visible symbol of the opposition.

Freeman's involvement, in fact, has been a campaign issue.

RTA supporters have attempted to portray the opposition as a small, isolated group held together by one man. "It seems absolutely clear," political strategist Jim Kneeland said recently, "that he is at the heart of this campaign."

Dean Claussen, a retired Foreign Service officer, picked up the theme at a pro-RTA press conference last week: "Kemper Freeman and the Bellevue Downtown Association, with their obsessive shortsightedness, would relegate Bellevue, the fourth-largest city in the state, to a transportation backwater."

The independent-minded Freeman reportedly isn't coordinating his speaking and lobbying efforts with Families Against Congestion and Taxes, the major group opposing the rail plan.

"Kemper's never sat still 30 minutes for speaker's training," says Steve Excell, co-founder of the Transportation Discussion Group. "God knows what he's saying."

What he's saying is sometimes inflammatory. At the Bellevue Downtown Association last week, he said "the RTA sucks." And on John Carlson's KVI radio talk show, Freeman said the rail plan "doesn't have a Chinaman's chance" of passing.

Why would a developer care so passionately about a cause he says is "politically incorrect," fighting a project that arguably could bring more shoppers to Bellevue Square and benefit workers at the hotel, offices and stores in his Bellevue Place development?

Some of his major tenants at Bellevue Square - Nordstrom, the Bon Marche and Eddie Bauer - support the transit plan.

Part of the answer undoubtedly is that the automobile has helped to make Freeman's fortune. With parking for 5,500 cars in a three-story garage, retailers in the expanded Bellevue Square are doing $500 million in annual sales.

"The ugly duckling, the automobile, has won," Freeman says. "In the urban areas in the same 20 years that the public officials have been trying to get us into transit, use of the automobile is up 300 percent."

Transit's share of commuter trips declined in every major city but one that built or expanded rail systems during the 1980s, according to U.S. Census figures Freeman recites to anyone who will listen.

Freeman believes the RTA plan would use up most of the region's transportation dollars without making a significant dent in the problem.

"All light rail is, is a new name for a trolley, which runs down a street we're now using for buses and cars and car pools," he says. "If people knew where they were going to go, there would be a war against this thing."

The way Freeman tells it, he was skeptical but open-minded about rail when he was appointed in 1986 to the steering committee of the Eastside Transportation Program. He came out of the nine-government effort a confirmed opponent.

Computer models showed transit wouldn't significantly reduce congestion but better roads would.

"This was a terrifying experience for people who `knew' the answers," Freeman says. "People said, `You know we can't do the road thing because it's politically impossible to build roads.'

"My nightmare is waking up in 16 years and $6.7 billion is gone and the transportation problems are far worse than they are today and we've done nothing but waste 16 years."

Seattle Times reporter David Schaefer contributed to this article.

Tomorrow in the Times: Disputes over costs and congestion rage, but few would deny that the transit plan owes its shape as much to politics as to engineering.

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

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