Appeal Promised on Challenge to Seattle Light Rail Plan

Published May 23, 2012

Opponents of a plan to allow Sound Transit use of the center two lanes on the Interstate 90 Bridge in order to extend light rail from Seattle to Bellevue promise to take their case back to Washington state’s highest court.

Representatives from the Eastside Transportation Association, including former State Sen. Jim Horn and Bellevue real estate developer Kemper Freeman, have announced they will appeal a Kittitas County Superior Court ruling that dismissed the group’s lawsuit, which named Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, and Sound Transit as defendants.

Sound Transit is the popular name for Washington state’s Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority. The case dates back to 2009 and was originally heard by the Supreme Court in September 2010, but the justices ruled in April 2011 the plaintiffs could not prevent the Washington State Department of Transportation from transferring the lanes before the fact.

Carpool Lanes for Rail

Sound Transit plans to connect Seattle’s Central Link with Bellevue and the Eastside’s future East Link by building a light rail line along Interstate 90 where the carpool lanes currently are.

Sound Transit hopes to start construction of East Link in 2015 or 2016 and launch passenger service in 2023.

“Ask any driver who suffers the daily misery across the bridge if they see any ‘unneeded’ highway,” said Horn. “Mercer Islanders need to be advised that they will be losing their special access to Seattle, if and when these lanes are surrendered to Sound Transit.”

Horn and ETA supporters argue the State’s 18th Amendment disallows gas taxes paid by road users to be used for anything other than the construction and maintenance of roads – which is defined as “highway purposes” in the Amendment.  Previous Washington Supreme Court rulings have upheld this view and determined that rail programs are not a highway purpose.

Diversion of Road Money

In its effort to thwart the project, the ETA argued “any transfer of the lanes” from an original plan for the I-90 bridge, one that did not include light rail at the time as it predated Sound Transit 2, “would essentially be an unlawful diversion of motor vehicle fund money.” They add the state is prohibited “from entering into ‘any agreement’ with Sound Transit for use of the two center lanes of I-90 for high-capacity light rail.”

The Supreme Court rejected the first argument but left open the possibility of a future lawsuit.

ETA responded by filing a similar action last fall, only to see it thrown out by Kittitas County Judge Michael Cooper, who declared the East Link light rail project, approved by voters in 2008, conforms to plans and agreements that have been in place since before the bridge was built.

Jeff Rhodes ([email protected]) is electronic news editor for Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Washington.