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Originally published Tuesday, December 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Eastside rail: We just don't get it

In a region so outspoken about global warming, one would think that any plan to scrap the Eastside rail line would have drowned in the obvious...

Special to The Times

In a region so outspoken about global warming, one would think that any plan to scrap the Eastside rail line would have drowned in the obvious hypocrisy. Instead, salvage crews could be knocking on Bellevue's door in weeks. Really, is the automobile lobby that strong, or have all of us — environmentalists included — finally been culturally and politically duped?

Ask Europe and even China. Railroads are the way to the future. Nor is the problem just global warming. Annually, urban sprawl costs the United States up to 3 million acres of open space. Highways encourage all those losses. At that rate, an area the size of California will be gone — paved over — in less than 40 years.

Still, our elected officials — now including those at the Port of Seattle — tell us how wonderful a bicycle trail can be. "Someday" the Eastside rail line will be needed. That someday just isn't now.

Paraphrasing a popular movie, "The American President," I used to think our politicians just don't get it. Finally, the historian in me understands. The deeper problem is that no American gets it, having lost all sense of what railroads do.

It started with the big lie of American culture: Railroads are out of date. Consider that while Europe and Japan launched high-speed rail service in the 1960s, we spent the decade tearing our railroads up.

Why? Because the highway lobby convinced Congress to ignore our railroads, while paving companies, oil companies and vehicle manufacturers became the big campaign contributors.

Now the irony cuts like a knife. The 1960s also launched American environmentalism — when young activists like Al Gore got their start. However, in his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," railroads are out of sight. Between speeches, we find him lamenting global warming in an airplane — or a chauffeured limousine.

Gore's Nobel Prize aside, no symbol of America's ignorance about railroads can be more telling than a noted environmentalist who barely mentions them. Worldwide, our argument that greener cars will solve global warming is still viewed as pure denial.

Worse, we get downright ditzy subscribing to the notion that bicycles might be the answer. Granted, they are heavily used in Europe and Asia, but not as a substitute for building rail. Today, the slower trains in Asia and Europe do 100 mph. The fastest exceed 200. Before coddling bicyclists — before cementing our failures — we need the exact same thing.

In Switzerland, four-lane highways have been banned from the Alps. By 2009, half of all truck traffic crossing Switzerland will shift to high-speed, electrified rail. Attacking global warming, the Swiss know to regulate the biggest offenders. In Olympia, regulation remains appeasement, while King County Executive Ron Sims talks of ripping out the Eastside track for a trail.

The point remains inescapable: If the Eastside rail line is lost, Puget Sound will have only one surviving railroad running north and south. Periodically, those tracks go down in winter landslides. Imagine losing them in an earthquake. In that case, freight traffic between the United States and Canada would have to detour all the way to Spokane. And forget about adding that second passenger train to Vancouver, B.C.

In the 1980s, the region's only electrified railroad was converted into a trail. Entering Puget Sound over Snoqualmie Pass, it was known as the Milwaukee Road. We still have a beer named after Milwaukee, but not — as do the people of Europe — that alternative for saving our mountains and air quality.

The Swiss are right. Saving the environment means to reverse history. Highways are what need reversing.

In Snoqualmie Pass, the electrified railroad Interstate 90 displaced was barely a sliver across the landscape. Today, we could plug that railroad into something really green, including wind, tidal and solar power. Better yet, paralleling Highway 169, the Milwaukee Road's former right-of-way between Maple Valley and Renton would be perfect for commuters in that burgeoning suburban corridor.

Suddenly, we want congestion all over the Eastside — the same mistake twice? We should be making thecuckoo clocks.

Greener cars have a place, whether hybrids or electrics. However, no one is going to build an electric airplane, nor will highway construction be less excessive. The greenest mode of mass transportation is the one America threw away.

Throw it away here and we deserve the world's condemnation as a state of posturing hypocrites. The Eastside rail line may not be perfect, but it is the place to start. If we cannot learn from history, or at least admit that we have sprawl, the next time we wring our hands over global warming, we should remember the world's true environmentalists and just shut up.

Alfred Runte of Seattle is director of special projects 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).

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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