Transcribed by Ernie Piper.
Eli Sanders: The people of this region have voted repeatedly for light rail—and they seem to like it, even if you don’t. How do you explain this disconnect?
Kemper Freeman Jr.: Well, in 1970, we virtually stopped building new roads as we had been before. There’s been some exceptions, but not much. It’s been a very modest increase in land miles since 1970. So, we’re 41 years into this scheme…
So why aren’t people driving around with pitchforks out of their car windows?
Sound Transit. I don’t know what their total budget in PR and advertising, marketing is, but it’s plus or minus a million dollars a month. Which makes them by themselves one of the largest advertisers in the market. And they use that money to—if there’s another word besides advertising to describe it, I’d call it brainwashing. I mean, it is the largest scale of brainwashing on any topic in the Northwest. There has never been a topic or policy or idea of the government that has had that much money spent on it. There isn’t even anyone in second place, not by far.
So what do you think the motivation is for this brainwashing?
This thing is being promoted… by the people who are from the industry. They build the equipment, they sell the engineering services, financial services, everything relating to it. They— When they run a public campaign, they’ll do everything they can to make it appear as if the public—as if it’s bubbling up from the public. But when you look at where the checks really came from, 90 to 95 percent came from the industry.
Well, you’ve put a lot of your own money into opposing light rail.
We’re a little tin can compared to a million dollars a month since 1996.
So do you feel like you’re losing?
No, I don’t feel—we’re not losing. We aren’t able to play in the big leagues. I mean, nobody, no public agency or anybody can compete with Sound Transit. Nobody’s got a million dollars a month to spend on this…
I would describe Sound Transit as an agency that doesn’t see any barriers, legal or otherwise. Ethics or fibs or anything else—nothing is a barrier to them. They feel that. I’ve seen this in the legislature. There are people who have political drive, who are so certain that their goal is worthy, that the ends justify the means. I’d describe Sound Transit as exactly that. They know they’re doing God’s work, philosophically. I’m not sure how they can know that, because they aren’t, but they believe it.
You say they think they’re doing God’s work, but you’ve also been associated with language that describes promoters of light rail as socialists and/or communists. And that’s sort of a Godless ideology, at least to a lot of people. Do you really think light rail is the tip of the spear for a creeping socialism?
Well, I think it is a fantasy of the left that this is somehow good, nationally.
The socialist left?
Well, the left is a whole collection of different people. But I think—I think it is. It has been the adopted philosophy of Democrats, although not all of them, and people who I’d say are the left. And, none of this means they’re bad people. I have full regard for anybody’s thought. I’m not one of these guys who thinks that everyone who thinks different from me is somehow the devil. What I respect most is someone who’s thinking. But in this case, most everyone’s being led like sheep. And there’s a lot at work leading this.
In a way, it was your grandfather who created the bridge—the I-90 floating bridge over Lake Washington—that you’re now trying to keep light rail from going over.
My grandfather, from his—if you read Generations, you know that he was— He went to his— They were from— He grew up in Yakima. He quit school in the fifth grade, working full time for his dad, setting type, delivering papers, collecting copy, writing stories, doing everything to put the paper out. And on his 21st birthday he went to his dad and said, “I appreciate all you’ve done for me, I’ve worked for you full time since the fifth grade, but at some point could I get a salary? Or could I at least someday know that I might have some ownership in the paper, or some kind of remuneration? Because if there isn’t any, it’s my birthday today and I need to start seeing what I’m doing for a living. You’ve helped me, I’ve helped you, that got us to here, but what’s next?” The great-grandfather, story goes, the great-grandfather blew his stack and said, “You ungrateful son of a bitch.”
This is Legh Freeman talking to Miller Freeman.
This is Legh talking to Miller. And he said, “You don’t appreciate all we’ve done? We’ve housed you, clothed you, fed you, treated you when you were sick, and now you want to be paid?” So, my grandfather, Miller… He left on his 21st birthday. The only thing he had with him was an old bicycle that he used to deliver papers, and the clothes he was wearing, and less than five dollars cash… And he’s 21, and he’s healthy. And he rode away from the office and sat down and said, “What am I going to do?” And his idea was—well, Legh Freeman’s paper had sort of covered the farm community of Yakima. And Miller, my grandfather, was already aware that in Wenatchee there was another farm community, and in other parts of Eastern Washington there were several, and he was even aware that—this is the way he tells the story: This community had more hay than it needed, but didn’t know what to do with it. This community had more cattle than it had hay, and didn’t know what to do with the extra cattle. And there was no way to communicate back and forth, so his idea was to do an Eastern Washington–wide, half-the-state-of-Washington farm paper that would cover all these different farm communities and become a vehicle for them to communicate things they couldn’t ever do before.
So that sounds kind of simple, but that’s what he did. And in fact, then he got on his bicycle and went from farm to farm to farm, collecting the stories, and where he could, he got someone to pay for an ad for a paper that had never been printed. And then he would ride an empty boxcar over to Seattle and wander around until he could find someone to print the paper for him. And then he would take the paper back on the same route with nothing but his bicycle and drop off the paper and try to sell another ad. Well, that became what was for many years the largest farm paper in Eastern Washington.
And it sounds like he learned the power of a trade publication, because he went on to—
That’s what he ended up specializing in. But he owned this farm paper for years, and what was one of the major stories all those years that he ran that paper was the railroads had a monopoly in this state, which was just driving the [agricultural] community crazy. And you had two choices, you could ship your goods to the world ports via the railroad and there was no competitor, or you could barge it down the Columbia River. But they didn’t have all the locks and all the stuff in it, so the barges would have been less expensive, but they didn’t have a way to work it very well. And the agricultural industry of the state said, “We need an alternative to the railroad.” And they started talking years ago about the cross-state highway. My grandfather ran for the legislature in 1913 on the single issue of creating the cross-state highway, and that’s a story all by itself. But it got passed, by one vote, and then was built later on. So one day the director of engineering for DOT in Olympia called my grandfather and said, “Well, since this was your idea, that we have the cross-state highway, where—from starting in Snoqualmie pass come down this side—where should it go? How’s it—where should it go to tidewater?” So my granddad went down to Olympia and all he had with him was a Standard Oil road map, which is not a fancy thing, and somewhere in my files I’ve got this map—all he did was take a ruler and a pencil, and he said, “Elliott Bay is the best deepwater port in the Northwest; Snoqualmie Pass is here,” and he just took a pencil, a map, and a ruler, drew a line from Snoqualmie Pass to Elliott Bay, and said, “That’s where it should go.”
And the engineer said, “Oh my God, that goes right across Lake Washington—the water’s too deep, and that’s too long a span for any normal bridge.” My granddad said, “Listen, you just asked me where it should be. You’re the engineer, you figure out how to do it. That’s where it should be. Agriculture’s over there, this is the low pass, the road should come over here, that’s where it should go. You’re the engineer, you figure out how to build the bridge.” And he did it, invented the floating bridge. They invented it in two years, from conception in 1938 to opening in 1940. Without computers or any of the other BS we think is standard today. They created something nobody else has ever done before of that scale. And it lasted until the contractor drilled holes at the waterline and, surprise, it sank.
I watched that happen when I was young kid.
Wasn’t that something? I went across that bridge one day, and I looked over—I’m a boater, have been all my life—and said, “Those guys think they’re working on a bridge, they don’t realize they’re working on a boat! You can’t put holes like that that close to the water and have that thing float.”
What kind of boating do you do? Sailing or motorboating?
I’ve had a sailboat for 22 years, but we sold it… When I was 10 years old, we had a 10-foot boat. When I was 13, I got a 13-foot boat. When I was 30-something, I got a 34-foot boat. Five years ago, I got a 55-foot boat… I love boats, but it doesn’t matter—any kind of boat. So I love boating, I love to sail. My wife, after twenty years, four years ago, said, “I’m not sailing any more.” I said, “Why?” She said, “It tips.” I said, “It doesn’t tip, it heels.” She said, “No it doesn’t, it tips.”
She’s a Virgo, which means everything needs to be in place.
I’m a Virgo.
Is that right? Okay, you seem like you might be. [Laughs] My mom was a Virgo, my daughter’s a Virgo, my first grandson’s a Virgo…
What are you?
I’m a Libra, on the cusp of Scorpio, so I’m a balance with a little fire. But I’m right on the cusp.
Back to the Lake Washington floating bridge. Do you feel a sense of ownership over I-90, since your grandfather helped get it built?
The biggest thing I hear when I’m talking to people about you, is that they don’t believe your opposition to light rail is financial. They think it’s ideological, or maybe something else. Like: You don’t think light rail will bring the right class or color of people to Bellevue Square.
That’s a Sound Transit–created perception… Sound Transit will do everything, if you emerge in any way, with ’em or against ’em, they will come to you and see how they can get you on their side. If you’re not on their side, all kinds of things will happen, and all of them have happened to me… And then, at the end, and then the last step is—and this is for any opponent—the last one is to vilify, any way they can.
…They vilify me. They just decide, well, he’s a developer, he’s a white boy, he’s a developer from Bellevue, obviously doesn’t like minorities, so he must be doing this just to keep minorities out of his shopping center. That’s the storyline they present to each other; that’s how they explain me to each other… If any of those guys come see our center, they’d see that we have twice the number of minorities than in Seattle, and they don’t even know that!
And the quote they refer back to is something you said about Southcenter a long time ago, is that right?
Okay, that is crazy. Okay, that—every shopping center that I know something about, there’s 50-some-thousand of them in America, I’ve been a trustee of the shopping-center industry since 1987, I chaired it ’94 to ’95 worldwide, I’ve traveled the world, I’ve still got a lot to learn, but this is a topic—we’ve got one of the best ones in America, in terms of productivity—I know something about shopping centers. I think I was being asked, I think she was covering retail, but I think [the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter] asked, ‘What is the difference between the markets, Southcenter, Northgate, et cetera?’
…I said, ‘Well, I think one of the things you’ll see when you come to Bellevue Square is that it’s an occasion they look forward to, they’re a little more dressed up than they would be at Southcenter or someplace else. And anyways, it kept— And we’re talking about— And you can talk to any marketing person, and this is what they talk about all day long! This isn’t some weird thing, this is—any shopping center can describe in detail the profile of its shopper like it was one person! It isn’t one; it’s tens of thousands. So they pressed on and they said, ‘You mean, if you go to Southcenter you can see differences?’ And I said, ‘One thing you won’t see around here too often is pink and blue hair curlers in a woman’s hair while she’s shopping here.’ But, I guarantee— And that isn’t— Is that wrong? It isn’t wrong. It’s just true!
Occasionally people will just put on—I have three sisters and a mother. When they just want to be comfortable—and, two sisters lived in Hawaii for a year and a half—they would put on, the most comfortable thing is a, what’s called a muumuu. And it’s just a shapeless dress that’s comfortable, and when you want to be comfortable and relaxed you put that on. So I described sometimes they’ll wear something like that, and sometimes they’ll just wear flip-flops. And for that I was called a racist. Out of context…
So if it’s not about the type of people, why don’t you want a train that drops a whole bunch of people in front of your stores every eight minutes?
I would love it, if— This is the key point, and I can explain this in black and white: Today Bellevue attracts 350,000 trips, in and out of Bellevue, per day. In 20 years we expect it to be 695,000. So we have a problem of finding a way of getting 695,000 people in and out of here in a day, but the current trips is half that. So our trips are expected to double. And that’s not my number, that’s Puget Sound Regional Council, City of Bellevue, Sound Transit… So, can we stop for a second? Sound Transit has never made good on original estimates of ridership, not even close, not even once. So they’ve never accomplished what they’ve sold us, when they’re selling.
Okay, so [they estimate] 51,000 riders [on East Link each weekday by 2030], but specifically related to Bellevue: 9,000 get on or off in Bellevue. So that’s 4,500 people—like, if you commuted in and commuted out.
Okay, so, if you read the Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] you’ll also see that of that—of the 9,000 that get on and off—according to the EIS, 7,000 of them are already on the bus. Already using transit. And they just assume that the four bus routes are now going to be canceled—the four best, most used, most efficient, most popular, are being canceled—and the assumption is the full number goes over to rail.
It may or may not, but it’s irrelevant.
So what’s left is 2,000 new trips 20 years from now, out of 695,000 trips a day. This is a rounding error. It’s two thirds of one percent of the new trips, is their best guess… I mean, I have gone through interviews as long as this, I have never had anyone use these numbers in the story. Never happens.
I’ll use them.
You can be the first, but I’ve been interviewed a lot of times. They don’t use that. They start with a picture of who I am, and all the things they’ve heard… I don’t mean it’s bad, it’s just the way it is. Reporters, by the time they call me they’ve got a story in their head what they’re looking for, and most often they want me to say things, they’ll record it, they’ll pick up the pieces that fit and fill in the blanks and write the story that they envision.
Well, I’m going to take these numbers and call Sound Transit and see what they say. But I’ll use them.
Get a hardcopy of the EIS because they fiddle—they have professionals—you’ll forget what day it is by the time they get back to you. But… I’ll stake my life on those numbers. There’s nothing tricked-up about those numbers.
So your answer to get to 300,000 more trips is more bus transit and more roads.
I think part of what people object to are the environmental concerns related to just building more roads and running more buses over them.
I can refute virtually 100 percent of all of those thoughts with facts. That is a facade of things that have been cloaked. This thing [light rail] has been blessed as if it somehow does all that stuff. Let’s start with electricity. Electricity—we’re not doing any more hydroelectric, sun and wind are minor players, very expensive, but minor players in terms of amount we get. About half of all new electricity is from coal… it comes from carbon. And somehow, Sound Transit likes to take credit for the fact [that] they’re environmentally sound. Like a light-rail car’s environmentally sound, because you can’t see the pollution. But believe me, it is polluting somewhere worse than a car.
So you’re saying that light rail, at some endpoint, uses just as much—
More. I can show you a proven chart.
Okay, but for now, how about just a basic question on pollution. Do you believe in global warming?
I’ve—my favorite topics in high school and college were sciences and math. And I’d taken literally all the math you can possibly take, and all the science you could take. I took seven periods, we have two study halls, I just went straight through. So I’ve had two years of biology, two years of botany, two years of zoology, a year of oceanography, and a whole bunch more at the University of Washington. So I understand a lot of those principles really well, and I understand also the synergy between plants and animals. And anybody who could possibly vilify CO2 is beyond anything I could imagine. And they’ve done it, and I don’t— I do not believe it, and here’s why. Animals breathe oxygen and exhale CO2. Plants breathe CO2 and exhale oxygen. It’s a— Oxygen is a good thing. CO2 is a good thing. I think people get confused with carbon monoxide, which can kill you. But, I mean, CO2’s inert.
I think— I’ve talked to people who’ve taken their boats through the Northwest Passage because the ice cap has moved north, and they did that to prove all the global warming—and I’ve talked to some of the people on those boats that did it, and they talked to the Natives that lived all along the way, and they asked ’em what they thought of this fact, and universally they all said the same thing. They said, this has been going on forever. There is nothing new here. This goes through cycles. This cycle we’re in is a warming cycle. We’ll be in a cooling cycle. This is continuous. And I think what’s gone on is more for political reasons. Don’t mistake me, I am an environmentalist. But I also believe in real science.
When you’re talking about adding road capacity for cars, you’re talking about increasing dependency on oil, and therefore dependency on foreign oil. Do you have a problem with that?
Okay, unlike everyone you’ve ever met, I took a five-day trip 30 years ago, paid for it on myself—it was half government people. I was either just finishing my term in the legislature or still in my last term. And a group of us, half public, half private, half Canadian, half American, chartered a 737 and had a well-thought-out trip where we basically stopped five times a day starting here, Spokane, going step by step all the way through Canada, Alaska, all the way up to Prudhoe Bay. This 737 had skis on it, landed places we’d never seen an airplane land before. A 737—like we were in a little Alaskan piper bush pilot plane.
Anyways, breakfast lunch and dinner… We stopped and saw some of the biggest hydroelectric facilities, natural gas… We saw Athabasca [oil sands] before anyone else. I’d never even heard of it. Saw that they already had $2 billion worth of extraction equipment up there, and it had five times the known oil reserves of Saudi Arabia—that was just one stop. We got to Anchorage, a spokesman there said—I’m not advocating this, but if the world were to decide the power itself, the world were to decide just to use coal from now on, and it could be solid, powder, liquid, gasified— It could be made to burn as clean— Within an hour and a half of Anchorage we have enough energy to power the world for 200 years.
So you would be for more drilling in Alaska?
I know it got boiled down to “Drill, baby, drill” in the last election, but you would be in the “Drill, baby, drill” camp.
Well, let me go further than that. There’s North Dakota, which is an unbelievably muted topic and should be in the headlines right now, and I have a copy of this here—and I could give you a copy of it, a national agency that keeps track of known reserves, first announced— I think it’s the Bakken oil field that is most of North Dakota, part of it goes into Canada, part of it goes into Montana, part of it goes into South Dakota, that has eight times the known reserves of Saudi Arabia… We should be up there, with all the unrest in the Middle East. We should be tearing into that—
You don’t seem super concerned about the environmental impact of cars and oil consumption.
That is absolutely not true. I’m as concerned as anybody who I’ve met. But I’ve studied on it— I think at best— Unless we want to totally destroy the country, and some people do, and among us some people want to just destroy it, ‘To hell with this country,’ it’s on their lips. Not just outside, but within. I think it’s a 30-year transition. If we were to decide that we’re no longer gonna be oil-dependent, as hard and as fast as we can go, short of destroying the country, it’s a 30 year proposition to begin to get us into meaningful alternatives to oil. And I am more than satisfied that we have—within this country—we have all the oil we need to make it through that 30-year transition. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t go through a 30-year transition. We ought to study this real hard and have a plan to get there. But to just with no plan—
Who are these people who want to destroy the country?
There’s always people who just don’t like what’s going on in every country. I’m not saying it’s a majority. I’m just saying there’s people within us, there’s always people that don’t like what’s going on.
And you think that anti-roads, pro-mass-transit sort of people are part of the problem.
If it was on your mind as the fall of this country, and you wanted to stick your thumb in and jam the gears— For whatever reason that’s a legitimate thought of people, and I’m not saying— That’s just somebody’s thought, that’s fine—but it’s not my thought. There is no single place you could jam the gears better than screwing with the transportation system, if that were your goal. I’m not saying that’s everybody’s goal that’s against cars. Within some of the most ardent folks I’ve met, it is their goal. And, to just shut this country down is their goal. I don’t think that’s the majority… but to some people, that’s just fine. So, and I’m saying it’s unnecessary to do that.
I’m confused about something: You talk about socialism, and people wanting a state that’s more intrusive in their lives, but you’re depending a lot on the state to intervene and build you bigger roads.
I think there are basic functions of government which are fundamental, and transportation is one of them. So I have my peace with them being in the transportation business.
Okay, well, like you suggested, I’m going to talk to Sound Transit and see what they have to say about your arguments and ridership assertions.
They have hired, or employ on the side, the best spin guys I know. And they will spin these facts but they cannot change these facts.
Well, there’s time before this piece runs, so I can come back to you with what they say.
I’d love that… These points I’ve been making, I’ve made in every interview. If you put these points in there, you’ll be the first one that did. I’m an optimist so I keep thinking, ‘Okay, maybe this time this’ll be the one that’s fair.’
Well, when we do an article we can really give it some space.
I mean, you guys are a breath of fresh air. You guys are bringing some new, good stuff. The traditional media’s running out of gas.