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Originally published Thursday, November 9, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Save Eastside rail line ...

In Washington state, what is it about transportation policy that always seems to bring out our worst? Name your poison — the Alaskan...

Special to The Times

In Washington state, what is it about transportation policy that always seems to bring out our worst? Name your poison — the Alaskan Way Viaduct versus the waterfront tunnel, the failed Seattle monorail or the crumbling Highway 520 bridge. And now, the so-called deal of the century: Boeing Field to the Port of Seattle in exchange for replacing the Eastside rail line with a trail.

When will we get serious and face the facts? Puget Sound is urban, not rural Vermont. We have fallen terribly behind in public transportation, always hoping to appease every interest.

For once, the public interest needs to be served. Called the railroad equivalent of Interstate 405, the Eastside rail line fortuitously complements our area of fastest growth. Along those 47 miles of track between Renton and Snohomish, population will double over the next 10 years.

How will all those people get to work? And ship their products back and forth? Hardly by using a trail. Recreation is not the crying need here; transportation is.

Pure expedience explains losing this railroad. Led by the Washington State Department of Transportation, the region has bet everything on widening I-405.

In Bellevue, the I-405 tunnel under the railroad would need to be modified to save the tracks. Conveniently, WSDOT plans to save $30 million — and sever the "competing" railroad — by not undertaking the retrofit.

Its owner, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, also considers the line redundant. More expedience. North to Canada and east over Stevens Pass, Puget Sound has just one other track.

Normally, when bureaucracies are behaving selfishly, public opinion reins them in. Why does that rarely happen here?

Because we, just like our leaders, substitute process for acting decisively. Among all American cities, we are the least committed to urban rail. We need a czar of transportation; instead, we elect bickering Cossacks who make deals.

Above all, a czar would remind us we live in earthquake country. Depending anywhere on a single railroad, we risk losing service for weeks or months. Even now, the Seattle-to-Everett main line suffers from winter mudslides that shut down all freight, commuter and passenger trains.

There is also the aging Seattle tunnel between King Street Station and the waterfront. Should that tunnel collapse in an earthquake, the line might be down for years.

Such is the Brave New World of railroads — monopolies that cannot think past 90 days. Fine, but our public officials are serving us. BNSF's decision to abandon the Eastside rail line should indeed be challenged here.

As for WSDOT severing the tracks to save its budget $30 million, no savings is more illusory. Widening I-405 will cost a fortune; currently $1.6 billion has been authorized. Light rail between downtown Seattle and Sea-Tac airport is costing as much as $450 million per mile. Imagine bringing the Eastside rail line back into service.

In 1983, BNSF closed its line over Stampede Pass and, more, wanted to abandon that line entirely. Fortunately, led by Sen. Irv Newhouse from Yakima County, rail defenders threw a fit. They were right. With container trains clogging the line over Stevens Pass, BNSF has spent hundreds of millions to bring Stampede back.

The point is not to count on monopolies to see the future, including highway lobbyists in Olympia. Rather, if we lose the Eastside rail line, we can be sure its equivalent will cost us billions.

As for the future of I-405, the research is definitive: As soon as a highway iswidened, it quickly refills to capacity.

Even Los Angeles, the capital of the automobile, holds its public officials accountable to these facts. Consequently, L.A.'s railroads are being rehabilitated — not abandoned. In a burgeoning urban environment, every mode of transportation is needed to share the load.

It is no wonder that cities known to copy Europe threaten to leave Puget Sound in their economic dust. Indeed, why come all the way from Bellevue into King Street Station? In Europe, the Eastside rail corridor would already be a main line, too, allowing people there to board a train with equal ease.

Here, we protest loudly the need for choices while remaining road warriors to a fault. Likewise, rather than improving the rails we have, we opt for "new" ones that drive us broke.

Regardless, more road warriors are constantly joining us, making the problem even worse. If Los Angeles can see the solution — balance — it is time we saw it, too. For once, let us dare hold our elected leaders accountable. Save the Eastside rail line, and we don't mean please.

Alfred Runte of Seattle is director of special affairs for All Aboard Washington, a rail-advocacy organization, and the author of "Allies of the Earth: Railroads and the Soul of Preservation" (Truman State University Press).

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