July 02, 2013 Print

Back to the Future: Living the Light Rail Disaster

My grandfather used to tell me stories about riding the elevated train from Tukwila to Seattle when he would help my great-great grandmother sell flowers at the Pike Place Market in the 1920s & 1930s.  It always seemed exotic and old fashioned that he rode a train to work.  This was a quaint way to travel from the Tukwila family flower farm to downtown Seattle. 

The original light rail system that covered much of the Puget Sound region for many years was shut down in 1940 Classic light rail from 1930sbecause it became impossible to support financially.  Today, our Central Planners choose to ignore history and travel back in time to enjoy a 19th century transportation technology on a bloated 21st century budget. Current and future generations won’t be able to afford the predictable light rail disaster in Washington State any more than my grandfather’s generation.

Trains do make sense for certain applications (specifically moving large volumes of freight), and public transportation systems using trains have been part of modern life for centuries.  The challenge we are experiencing in Washington State and elsewhere in America is that Central Planners invent a “solution” that is forced on the unwilling and skeptical citizens. Light rail is the current back to the future utopian dream certain to solve all our public transportation schemes. Light rail has become the holy grail of Central Planning in almost every major jurisdiction in America, and the supporters of light rail attach a fanatical religious significance to the light rail vision. This elevation of light rail as a concept beyond question, challenge, or debate has only guaranteed disaster in nearly every location it is imposed.

Why do they support Light Rail so fanatically? Did they spend too much time backpacking around Europe on their Euro-Pass and believe America should be just like Europe? We all love Thomas the Train, Legos, and Sim City, but are people who become Central Planners just not able to escape this fantasy world? Maybe these are all true, but here are some of their primary reasons:Oops - mistakes with light rail are not always this obvious - 2010 Seattle Times

  • First, there is a strong belief that carbon-oxidizing automobiles are evolutionary dead-ends in the ecology
    of urban environments.  Basically, they don’t like cars.
  • The current trend in Central Planning supports Manhatten-style living – high rise, “walkable” environments.  Since this is the group-think vision, light rail is a logical transportation choice.
  • They believe light rail is better than buses or cars because it is more environmentally sensitive – less pollution, less noise, and a light rail project can appear to demonstrate government is truly committed to public transportation.
  • They claim the operating costs should be lower than every other option (they really do make this claim).
A classic fun video from a frequent Metro rider in D.C.

Although I was too young to experience riding the elevated train into Seattle like my grandparents and earlier generations of the Morgan family, I did live in New York City for four years and lived the joy of riding the subway and East Coast transportation system.  These are not truly “light rail” transportation systems, and much has been written about the merits and downsides to forcing these infrastructure projects on cities like Seattle which lack the same 19thcentury infrastructure legacy found in the more densely populated East Coast cities. 

The problem with the obsessive focus on light rail in Washington State is the religious faith our Central Planners have for this one option for public transportation above all others.  It is not clear if this religious obsession and devotion to Light Rail exists because of the human nature tendency of group think government.  Perhaps it is just a prerequisite before you can get a job in Central Planning.  Whatever the reasons or underlying causes, the practical result is the siphoning of massive quantities of limited tax dollars into pointless, expensive boondoggles that never achieve the promised utopia.

Portland’s light rail experiment called Tri-Met is fiscally doomed, and will eventually fold from the fact that just like the elevated train my Grandfather once rode to Seattle in the 1930s(and this can only accelerate now that the CRC project may truly have died).  Atlanta’s MARTA rail system and the goofy ATL streetcar program are disasters.  Denver’s Light Rail utopia is going under.  Houston’s money pit light rail hole just gets deeper.  There are endless stories of how the Central Planners’ religious enthusiasm for light rail is misguided. 

The Central Planners in Washington State, King County, and Seattle are not immune to the guaranteed failure that light rail represents for our future.  Growing up in King County, we mocked the genius Central Planners of previous generations who thought limiting I-5 to two lanes when it reached Seattle was a good idea.  As we inched forward in crawling I-5 traffic, we ridiculed these Central Planners who ensured the I-5 traffic snarl would be impossible to fix by building a park and a convention center on top of a narrowed I-5.  Future generations will mock the foolish schemes of today’s Central Planners forcing light rail on the citizens of Washington State even when the citizens reject these schemes at the ballot box.

This situation would be less tragic if these utopian light rail schemes didn’t siphon limited transportation tax dollars from worthy and necessary transportation projects all around Washington State.   In fact, many observers of transportation policy have noted that these other legitimate road projects have been delayed, prevented, or ignored so that our Central Planners can worship at the altar of Light Rail. 

Bellevue - Did not want trains here

Think about how we could use those transportation dollars currently diverted to light rail.  Perhaps we would have enough money to reeducate the engineers at WADOT about how to design pontoons that actually float.  Perhaps we could fix the WADOT accounting software so that they would know who is getting those missing millions of dollars from the CRC project.  We might even be able to teach the WADOT purchasing department how to purchase a ferry that is not two or three times the cost of a similar ship purchased elsewhere.  Perhaps, in a perfect world, we could even get WADOT to take steps to fix bridges like the I-5 Skagit Bridge that collapsed instead of just noting the truck impacts on the support structures for a few decades and waiting for the inevitable collapse.  We could use these released transportation dollars to address congestion and safety issues all around Washington State. 

I look forward to the day when rational, logical transportation policy that includes some cost-benefit analysis returns to Washington State.  Until then, we will continue to suffer at the hands of our Central Planners obsessed with going back to the 1930s of my Grandfather’s time.  It has been said that those who do not learn their history are destined to repeat it ( they always say “this time will be different”). Just like the light rail system in my Grandfather’s day was not able to survive financially, our current light rail experiments won’t succeed either.  It would be nice to break this cycle of predictable failure. 

Light Rail - we do not need rails


Glen Morgan

Property Rights Director

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