Anyone who regularly rides Metro buses has experienced the following: you’re sitting on a cold bus, stuck in heavy traffic, late for work or your appointment, dripping wet from a wait at a bus stop in the pouring rain, and fuming because the bus pulls in and out of traffic at every other block to pick up or drop off more passengers. If only you had a flying carpet. If only you could push a button and travel with the speed of light, like the e-mail messages you send every day. If only Seattle and King County had a real mass transit system.

We had the opportunity back in the early 1970’s, when the idea of light rail first came up for discussion. If we had built a light rail system then, we might not be looking at constant traffic gridlock like we have today. Today we’d be discussing an expansion of the existing rail system–a much cheaper alternative to building a whole new one right now. If only.

Since that’s not the case, we’re stuck with trying to figure out how to make light rail work in a city so spread out, with so many different areas of town that need rail service, that just figuring out the route has become a long, drawn-out exercise in futility, punctuated with arguments between neighborhood advocates, business interests, and public officials.

Key among those arguments is what the rail system will look like in various parts of town. In the north end, residents want a complete tunnel through the U-District and Roosevelt neighborhood, in spite of the fact that an elevated train would make the most sense along Roosevelt Way. In the south end, residents have already fought a victorious battle to run the rail line through the Rainier Valley instead of along the Duwamish River, where it would have become the Boeing Express. Now south-end folks are looking at a surface rail system that will displace heavy car and pedestrian traffic from Martin Luther King Way and steal land from 64 houses and apartment buildings, 67 businesses, and take about 245,450 square feet of land. In comparison, the north Seattle tunnel will displace only 2 residential buildings, 2 public facilities, 6 businesses, and take about 38,325 square feet of land.

No wonder south-end people are upset. Up until October, Sound Transit had been telling them that a tunnel under the south end was technically impossible–until, that is, Frank Coluccio Construction Co. (located in the Rainier Valley), whose specialty is underground construction, showed that it is in fact possible to build a tunnel there. Now Sound Transit is studying the option, whining about the cost, and threatening to move the rail line back to the Duwamish.

Cost is a big factor, but when we look at where the costs are spread out over the whole rail line, we can see that Sound Transit planners figured they could scrimp in the south end. The north Seattle and Capitol Hill rail lines are budgeted at $130 million per mile, while the Rainier Valley line is budgeted at only $46 million per mile.

Tunnels are expensive to build and operate, as Metro’s experience with the downtown bus tunnel shows. It ran $50 million over budget when it was built, and since then it has sucked up the bulk of Metro’s security budget to maintain it. It took about 900 Metro buses off the streets of downtown, leaving room for more cars–which did nothing to discourage people from driving downtown or encourage them to take the bus instead. Many people still have never ridden through the tunnel, don’t know where it is or how to get down to it, or don’t know that it exists at all. And the rails that were laid down in the tunnel in preparation for the coming light-rail system were the wrong size, and will have to be torn up and replaced, draining money from the new rail system construction.

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that other cities have full subway systems that work well. The difference here is the piece-meal way in which it’s being built, and the chosen mode of transport: light rail can’t climb steep grades and works best on flat terrain (like the geography of downtown Portland, a city built in a river valley). Why planners thought light rail was the perfect option for Seattle–a city built almost entirely on hills–is a mystery. If the original idea was to put the thing mostly underground, then the whole line should be a subway system, not just the Capitol Hill and north Seattle segments.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the light rail system was released in December. Currently, there’s a 45-day public comment period.