Jack Hunter is torn over Proposition 1. He is excited by the idea of 50 miles of light rail, but he's not keen on voting for 1,500 new highway lane miles. Yet if Jack Hunter is conflicted, he is hardly alone.
The Sierra Club and the Transportation Choices Coalition, two organizations of which Jack is a member, find themselves on opposite sides of the table.
The Sierra Club vehemently opposes the multi-billion dollar proposal, which is to be funded by an increased sales and car-tab tax, while the TCC strongly supports it.
The rift extends across the environmental movement. The Bicycle Alliance of Washington is for Proposition 1, but the Cascade Bicycle Alliance condemns it. Environment Washington says yes. Conservation Northwest says no.
The division runs all the way through the upper echelons of the State Democratic Party: Gov. Christine Gregoire endorses the bill, but long-time transit advocate and current King County Executive Ron Sims has publicly opposed it. Sims and the Sierra Club find themselves in the same camp as conservative developer Kemper Freeman and former Republican State Senator Jim Horn.
The groundwork for such strange alliances was laid in March 2006, when the State Legislature passed a bill stipulating that, if any mass-transit funding package was to go to the ballot before December 1, 2007, it had to be coupled with road and highway funding. Gordon Black of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington calls the fusion a "shotgun wedding we're all forced to attend."
This is the strangest political marriage Hunter has ever seen.
"In my seven decades on this planet," says Hunter, "I've never seen an issue that divides the environmental community like this, nor one that brings the extreme right and the extreme left together."
And this is no minor squabble. When the residents of King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties vote on Proposition 1 on November 6, they will be voting on a package that between now and 2027 will allocate, according to The Public Interest Transportation Forum, 23.5 billion to mass-transit and 14.3 billion to roads and highways.
From these numbers, Rob Johnson of the TCC says that the proposition is an overwhelming victory for mass-transit and the environment, noting that his organization endorses 85 percent of the proposal, and that much of the highway funding is for maintenance and expansion of bus and high-occupancy vehicle lanes.
But Tim Gould, chair of the Sierra Club's Transportation Committee, isn't buying it. "Despite what the proponents are saying, if you look at the blueprint, the proposition is really about highway capacity expansion," he says.
The package, Gould says, is a needless compromise that will lead to a net increase in the region's greenhouse gas emissions.
Then there's Jim Horn, Chairman of the Eastside Transportation Association, who is allied with the Sierra Club in opposition to Proposition 1, but for diametrically opposed reasons.
"The money that is allocated to building new roads and expanding highways is well spent, but there simply isn't enough of it," Horn says. "The package isn't cost-effective, and it won't reduce congestion."
Instead of light rail, Horn advocates expanding the bus system and continuing research in cleaner, more efficient automobiles.
Within the environmental community, however, the debate hinges on whether this is an acceptable compromise, as well as what would happen if the measure fails.
"The impact of failure would be devastating," says Megan Blanck-Weiss of Futurewise. "We simply cannot afford to delay the light rail. Past experiences indicate that when mass transit gets voted down, it doesn't come back to the ballot for a while, and when it does, it's scaled way back."
Gould has the opposite view. Since after December 1, the legal ties between mass transit and road funding will be severed, he says that Proposition 1 "is the last opportunity for a lot of these road and highway projects to get funded." He says the mass-transit portion of Proposition 1 could go back to the ballot as soon as 2008-- and this time uncoupled from highway expansion. "I think [Proposition 1] would pass by itself," says Gould. "It has strong support in King County and in the City of Tacoma."
That's a perfect solution environmentalists can't hold out for, says Transportation Choices director Jessyn Farrell. "In voting for [Proposition 1] we're saying 'We're not going to fight the way we have in the past,' because in the past we've lost," she says. "We have a national transportation system that is an environmental disaster. The 'just say no' philosophy doesn't work."
That line of thinking has swayed Jack Hunter. "I don't think the Sierra club is being pragmatic, and I think that's what liberals have to be," he says. "I'm going to vote for it.