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Originally published Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Green fever colors the future of roads

You probably haven't heard of Mike O'Brien. He seems certain you haven't. But if there's anyone from the governor to the mayor to the special-interest...

Seattle Times staff columnist

You probably haven't heard of Mike O'Brien. He seems certain you haven't.

But if there's anyone from the governor to the mayor to the special-interest purveyors who gets credit for being exactly right about Puget Sound's worst political mess — transportation — it is this guy.

Right that voters would go for light rail, regardless of the economy. Right that they don't want bigger roads — maybe even that the freeway era is over.

And right that the almighty automobile is no longer king of Puget Sound.

There isn't much other conclusion you can draw, based on local elections and polling data going back a decade.

Anything car-centric either struggles or fails — from big new elevated highways to tunnels to freeway expansions.

Anything green wins — from buses to rail to HOV lanes. Or, as we're probably about to find out, congestion tolling.

The vote Nov. 5 to tax ourselves $17.8 billion for light rail was a watershed. Not only did it end 40 years of dithering about rapid transit, but the landslide win sent the clearest message yet to any future roads plans: Be green, or be dead.

O'Brien, the boyish volunteer chairman of the local Sierra Club, has been predicting all this for years.

Nine months ago he even quit his job as chief financial officer of the corporate law firm Stokes Lawrence so he could push for it full time. For no pay.

"It's a huge story, a major shift in the way this city thinks and lives," he said, after rolling up to a downtown coffeehouse on his bicycle the other day. "What's exciting is that it's coming from the bottom up. The public intuitively gets it better than the politicians."

Gets, he says, that new roads won't ease traffic. That too many highways and cars destroy quality of life. That energy costs and global warming mean we're going to change the way we live and drive. That we're a big city now — not everyone gets a two-car garage.

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I now listen to him. He said most of this to me a year ago, and I ignored him.

That was when the Sierra Club, practically alone, opposed a massive roads and rail plan. O'Brien argued the roads portion was poison. After voters turned it all down, I sent O'Brien a nasty e-mail, congratulating him for joining the ranks of backward Seattleites who have denied the city rapid transit for generations.

He saved my e-mail and used it as motivation.

"I wanted to be able to meet you on this day to say that I did what I had promised all along — to come back and fight for and pass a better, greener light-rail plan," he said. "One that didn't also pave us over with roads we don't need."

He was right. He's also right that Seattle — the entire region — has turned a page. It doesn't mean fixing up old roads isn't important. But the Kemper Freeman model of wide, free highways leading to unlimited free parking, such as at the mall not far from the Clyde Hill home where O'Brien grew up, is history.

And that means you, Alaskan Way Viaduct. Next month, the state is once again due to decide what to do with Seattle's creaking waterfront highway.

To O'Brien, the people have already spoken: Go green.

Meaning no new freeway — not in a tunnel and not in the sky — is going to fly.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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