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EPA’s not tracking with rail goals

It took years to get local citizens and local and state officials to agree on a plan to use existing north/south train tracks from Tacoma to Everett to supply new metropolitan commuter rail. With potential impacts to freight rail, it wasn’t a perfect or complete plan, but with the daily experience of auto traffic strangling Interstate 5, voters readily approved it two years ago.
Federal transportation authorities are supportive, of course, but suddenly the Environmental Protection Agency, of all organizations, is trying to throw the trains off the track. Get this: They want their people and governments of Central Puget Sound to give greater study to the “alternatives” along the Seattle/Everett corridor.

If they had to sit in lines of fume-belching cars on the freeways each night, maybe they would know that the real alternative to passenger trains — still more cars — is anything but benign from an environmental standpoint.

The appeal of commuter rail linking Everett to Tacoma was one of the primary reasons voters gave Sound Transit the $3.9 billion go-ahead (finally) in 1996. After all, Amtrak runs intercity passenger trains on the tracks with freight trains. Why not add commuter trains on the existing track and let passengers connect with ferries and local transit at new multimodal centers in Edmonds, Mukilteo and Everett?

Commuter rail will be a fraction of the cost of light rail and will be used most heavily when I-5 can use some relief — namely, during rush hours. Riders will be offered an energy-efficient, fast and friendly alternative to the nightly parade of red lights. Makes sense, right?

Well, not to the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA apparently fears wetland destruction and loss of eelgrass between Seattle and Everett if Sound Transit has to add 1.6 miles to the 82-mile corridor of passing track along Puget Sound. Unmentioned are the environmental tradeoffs — the offsetting benefits of Sound Transit’s plans to restore intertidal area previously sealed off by the railroad, further work to shore up the banks along the expanded passenger run and (not to harp on this point) the alleviation of auto pressure on the ecology of the whole region. The Sound Transit project, on balance, is overwhelmingly positive.

When I represented the Edmonds/Woodway/Mukilteo area on the Snohomish County Council, we worked with neighborhoods and the railroad in the constant battle to prevent homes from sliding into the Sound. We succeeded in restoring road access to homes south of Picnic Point. Safe access to Picnic Point Park also was finally secured through a cooperative agreement with Burlington Northern Railroad to build a county pedestrian overpass to the park.

Sound Transit should be given the chance now to work with the beachfront communities, Snohomish County, shoreline cities and the railroad on shoreside improvements that allow the safe passage of freight and passenger trains, stabilization of homes and enhancement of salmon habitat. It will be a win-win-win-win outcome for commuters, cargo, communities and critters.

Not so fast, says the EPA. The feds (that is, one branch of the feds) want Sound Transit and the taxpayers of Puget Sound to take yet another look at “alternative” alignments along I-5 and I-405. They think it would be swell to consider the options of more car pools and buses, not to mention passenger ferries that might link Everett to Seattle.

You would think the EPA had invented such ideas. But, in fact, they have been considered and, in fact, are playing — and must play — a growing role in the total Puget Sound transportation scheme. Washington state transportation leaders already are expanding cross-Sound passenger-ferry service. Sound Transit is adding express-bus service and working with employers and transit agencies for more car pools. The HOV system has recently been expanded to Everett and along I-405 by the state transportation department.

But then what do we do? There is no more room on I-5.

People who actually live here and deal with worsening traffic have concluded that north/south commuter rail makes sense as one element in an improved metropolitan transportation system. They voted on it and for it. But, if instead of moving forward, EPA delays the process while we spend another four, six, 10 (pick a number) years doing new studies, what chance do we ever have of getting the EPA to let us address other transportation needs in the 520 and I-405 corridors?

It is unfortunate that Congress and the Administration, in its otherwise sensible new highway and transit plan (referred to as TEA-21), did not address the pernicious problem of conflicting regulatory processes. All our politics seems to focus on how to enact reasonable new laws and programs, but few party platforms or caucus meetings of either party focus on restraining overreaching regulators. Few political candidates campaign on reducing overlapping bureaucratic jurisdictions, even within the same level of government.

Yet conflicting regulations and endless permit processes can hurt implementation of the very laws and programs we spend so much time deliberating. In this case, they retard the nation’s commerce. They even threaten to worsen the environment that an “Environmental Protection Agency” exists to protect.

With all the national political figures showing up these next few days to talk about the wonderful things they are going to do for us, perhaps one or two might address the question of how the federal government can get out of the way sometimes and let a progressive local initiative move forward.

Bruce Agnew

Director, Cascadia Center
Since 1993, Bruce Agnew has been leading the Northwest Cascadia initiative serving as director of the Cascadia Center in Seattle. The Center is a private, non-profit, public policy center engaged in regional and international transportation and technology. Bruce also co-chairs of the Transportation Group for the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWER) – a public private partnership of ten Northwest states and Western Canadian provinces/territories. Since 2017, he has served as director of the ACES NW Network dedicated to the acceleration of ACES (Autonomous-Connected-Electric-Shared) technology in transportation.