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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

July 17, 2009 at 10:30 AM

Training wheels: Seattle enters the exotic world of 21st century transportation

Top of the News: Seattle is about to dip its toe into the 21st century when it opens its first light-rail line. My advice: Be calm.

Most Americans don’t get out much, so light rail is exotic, strange, even threatening (especially to a mythmaking minority of anti-transit fetishists and to the oil industry). The media, which are curiously incurious about the hidden costs and damage caused by freeways, will scrutinize every bump and burp of light rail.

The good news is that modern light rail has succeeded in every city in which it has been built. Seattle will have to work really, really hard to mess it up. Even road warrior Phoenix opened a wildly popular 20-mile line last December — so the bar to succeed is pretty low.

Light rail will be vital to the economy of metro regions in the decades to come, as energy prices rise, further sprawl becomes untenable and people just get sick of sitting in traffic. We still have a 1965 transportation system in the United States (with fewer intercity trains than 1965) — but with more than 100 million more people, most in metro areas. Freeways were shown to be congestion generators as early as the 1930s. Yet most advanced nations — and developing China — are leaving us far behind in creating transportation options for the new century, from subways and light rail to super-fast trains.

The economic consequences of our backwardness have been many, from the productivity lost to long, single-occupancy vehicle commutes, to missing out of creating the industries that build light- and heavy-rail trains for a hungry world. It has left us ill-prepared for much more costly and unpredictable oil. Lack of frequent, fast passenger trains have left us at the mercy of a constantly troubled airline industry.

On the other hand, in most light-rail cities, the lines have been magnets for investment, transit-oriented development for residences, retail and employment centers. Synergy and productivity follow. Denver has been a model, and is building more than 100 miles of additional light rail and commuter rail.

The goal should be to return choice to American mobility. People can certainly drive (although it shouldn’t be subsidized as heavily as in the past). But they can also use light-rail, commuter trains and long-distance trains.Buses have their place, but can’t be the only transit mode in a major metro. Bullet trains are way overdue, but just restoring frequent, reliable regular passenger trains would be a big help right now, especially between close city pairs (think of the success of the Cascades).

Political leaders and businesses have an opportunity to find ways to make less expensive, faster-built rail systems — and we can still create the industries at home (too bad GM’s mandate wasn’t changed to include this). The other Washington is slowly starting to improve funding for transit and Amtrak, but the oil and auto lobbies are still hugely powerful. Still, we’re making a start.

Welcome to the future, Seattle. It’s about time.

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Big banks left standing

Brought in big dough, all the while

Needing taxpayers

Come back at 1 p.m. and vote for your favorite haiku of the week. Better yet, write your own.

Comments | More in Transportation

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