Last November, in the throes of one of the most bitter campaigns in recent memory, the local chapter of the Sierra Club was the pariah of Seattle's environmental movement. A lone outlier in a chorus of environmental support for the "roads and transit" ballot measure, the venerable Club was reviled by other mainstream environmental groups as a "radical" voice against a proposal that included 50 miles of light rail. The Club's response: We'll support light rail—once it doesn't come shackled to 182 new miles of highways.
Fast-forward four months to early spring 2008, when Sound Transit staff were scrambling to come up with a package the agency's fractious three-county board could get behind. Just as before, there was the Sierra Club, fighting to have its environmental agenda represented in the proposal. The Club's three-pronged request: an analysis of the transit proposal's greenhouse-gas impact on the region; consideration of future light rail on SR 520; and station access funds that could pay for bus circulator lines or dense development around transit stops instead of a blanket commitment to parking garages.
Despite cries from environmentalists with groups like Environment Washington and the Transportation Choices Coalition that the Sierra Club failed to see the transit for the roads, it looks like, so far at least, they're getting their wish: Sound Transit has traded parking garages for station access funds; agreed to fund a first-of-its-kind independent greenhouse-gas analysis; and agreed in principle to leave a future rail line across 520 on the table.
"I think [the Sierra Club's advocacy] had a big impact" on the agency's decision to include more explicitly environmental measures in the plan, says Sound Transit communications director Ric Ilgenfritz. "Instead of saying, this $20 million is for 400 parking stalls in Sumner"—a city whose Republican mayor has said he opposes another parking garage downtown—"we'll say, this $20 million is to improve station access in Sumner"—a statement that doesn't preclude, for example, building more housing in lieu of parking stalls. Environment Washington program director Bill LaBorde, who appeared alongside TCC's regional policy director Rob Johnson at last week's Sound Transit board meeting to praise the agency's change of heart, agrees that "the Sierra Club has definitely been the most vocal" in pushing for improvements to Sound Transit's plan.
Mike O'Brien, chairman of the Sierra Club's Cascade Chapter, says the Club is "very encouraged" by Sound Transit's statements at last week's board meeting and is leaning toward getting behind a 2008 ballot measure, pending the actual release of a plan. Sometimes, it would seem, standing your ground is a better option than capitulating to the forces of "compromise"—even when your entire movement is lined up against you.