Navigating the Future | Kemper Freeman says light rail is 'off the track'

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Sound Transit's light-rail planning represents a progressive approach to mass transit, but the public has long been divided over whether the concepts hold any virtue.

Few people have more of a stake in the fight than Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, who owns around eight percent of the real-estate in downtown Bellevue.

The tendency with voters has been to reject all light-rail initiatives during the first go round, and then accept paired-down versions in the next election.

Kemper, however, has been firm in his stance, voicing an unequivocal dislike for Sound Transit's regional mass-transit plan.

"It's as far off track as anything I've ever seen government propose," he said. "We're being sold an impossible dream."

Freeman has commissioned experts to study mass transit, and he says it's clear from what they've told him that rail-based systems only work in areas with extremely high densities – places like New York City, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Freeman notes that metropolitan Seattle is far from ever reaching that level, with 2,200 people per square mile compared with New York's roughly 60,000 people per square mile.

"We're trying to apply (rail-based transit) where we have a fraction of the density," he said. "We're using the wrong tools. It's like using a sledge hammer to set a tack."

Freeman is also skeptical about Sound Transit's ridership projections. He argues that the overwhelming majority of metropolitan Seattleites – around 95 percent – will always be dependent on the car.

"If light rail came anywhere close to their marketing in reality, I would be the biggest supporter that there is," he said. "This thing is a complete farce."

Freeman has his own version of the ideal regional transportation system, but it starts with a concept every bit as divisive as light rail. He's calling for more roads, specifically a six-percent increase in lane miles that he estimates would reduce congestion by 36 percent.

From there, the Freeman plan gets more transit-oriented, with a drastic increase in buses and bus rapid transit.

Freeman says a bus rapid-transit system using dedicated lanes to bypass congestion could be implemented in under three years at a fraction of the cost of light rail. He suggests buses will attract more riders because of their ability to reach every nook and cranny of the region.

"There is no other idea, for this teeny investment, that produces more transit trips than that one," he said.

Sound Transit disagrees, claiming those new buses would only get tied up in traffic once they reach the city.

"Nothing provides the reliability that rail does," said Bruce Gray, a spokesman for the agency.

Freeman's dream transportation plan also includes free ridership, which he claims would increase the number of transit users while still costing less than building and operating light rail.

Drastic increases in vanpools and bike lanes are also needed, according to his plan.

Freeman, ever the businessman, is averse to cost overruns, so he's leveled much criticism at Sound Transit for going $1 billion over its initial Central Link construction budget.

All told, Sound Transit expects to exceed its original construction budget for light rail from Sea-Tac to the University District by $3 billion.

The agency is also far behind its initial timeline for that segment, which expired in 2006. The route to the University District is not expected to be completed until 2016.

Gray suggests Sound Transit's early mistakes were merely the result of growing pains. The agency adjusting its forecasts in 2001, and brought in new leadership with CEO Joni Earl.

"In 1996, we were a brand new agency with three different lines of business," Gray said. "We have 13 years of experience now."

Sound Transit opened Central Link in July on time and $100 million under budget according to the revised plan.

That doesn't cut it for Freeman.

"They're so lucky they have an understanding public that's willing to look the other way when they're off by billions of dollars," he said. "They can laugh at their rookie mistakes, but they're all at our expense."

One positive sign for Sound Transit is that construction costs aren't rising as severely as they once were. Recent bids for University Link came in below the agency's estimates.

"I think the trend is very good when you talk about light-rail construction," Gray said.

As for whether there's any debating left to be done over the virtues of light rail, Sound Transit doesn't think so.

"The voters have pretty much spoken regarding our critics," Gray said.

That may be true, but Freeman isn't finished. He joined the Eastside Transportation Association in filing for a writ of prohibition to stop Sound Transit from using Interstate 90 for light rail.

The request, filed July 17 in the state Supreme Court, alleges that Sound Transit's light rail plans would violate the 18th Amendment to the state's constitution, which states that roads built with gas taxes can only be used for road traffic.

There was no determination at the Reporter deadline about whether the full court would hear the case.

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