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FACT CHECK: Sound Transit ballot measure not a big climate saver

In a year that has broken record after high-temperature record, politicians in Washington state are saying a vote for them is a vote for the climate. Two initiatives on the ballot claim to be major advances in fighting climate change. KUOW fact-checks the initiative claims.

Environmental activists have lined up in support of Sound Transit 3, the ballot measure (officially known as Prop. 1) that would double the size of the region's light-rail system and make other transit improvements.

Supporters call it the most important vote you can cast for the global climate.

"It's not the only thing that we need to do, but it is a critical piece of what we need to do," said Vlad Gutman-Britten, with the group Climate Solutions.

In the Northwest, the biggest threat to the climate isn't industry: It's people driving.

"Sound Transit 3 is a solution that gets at the main source of pollution in Washington State, the transportation sector," Gutman-Britten said. "So it's really important from that perspective."

Taking a bus or train generally pollutes less than driving -- especially when the transit runs on electricity, as light rail does.

Sound Transit has tallied how much gasoline our region wouldn't burn if ST3 passes.

Once all the ST3 projects are up and running by the year 2040, enough people would switch from cars to trains and buses that the region's drivers would avoid 360 million miles of vehicle travel and save 15 million gallons of gasoline each year, according to Sound Transit.

The reduced driving would keep more than 130,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide out of the sky each year.

Those sound like big savings, but they'd barely make a dent in the patterns of transportation and pollution in the Seattle area: Sound Transit 3 would shave about 1 percent off the region's vehicle travel and less than half a percent off the emissions our region is expected to put out in 2040, based on projections by the Puget Sound Regional Council.

Groups campaigning for the Sound Transit measure have overstated ST3's carbon savings by a factor of six:  

[asset-images[{"caption": "Mass Transit Now's website overstates the climate benefits of the Sound Transit ballot measure by a factor of six.", "fid": "131288", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201611/MTN-700000tons.JPG", "attribution": "Credit"}]]Most of the benefits that campaigners are claiming for ST3 will come no matter what voters choose this fall: They'll be delivered by projects that were approved by voters in 2008 (in Sound Transit 2) but haven't been built yet.

Mass Transit Now and the Washington Environmental Council put out the false information on campaign emails, websites and social media. Mass Transit Now corrected its error in a fine-print footnote of a subsequent email to supporters but has left the claim up on its website.

"It's a huge overstatement," former Washington state secretary of transportation Doug MacDonald said.

"There might be reasons to vote for Sound Transit 3," MacDonald said. "But if you think that it's going to save the planet because it's a climate action strategy, you're being bamboozled."

Gutman-Britten said ST3 will have climate benefits that aren't captured by Sound Transit's numbers yet: Land use will change as transit-oriented developments put more people close to light rail, making trips shorter and modes of travel other than driving easier.  

"People who are able to work and play and live in these areas may not need a car at all," Gutman-Britten said. "And that's a really, really big deal and it's transformative."

Construction and carbon 

Sound Transit's numbers also don't account for the energy needed to build 62 miles of track and a 3.3.-mile tunnel from downtown Seattle to Queen Anne.

Heavy machinery would belch heat-trapping emissions into the sky for years before light-rail service begins.

Sound Transit has estimated the construction impacts of building 8.5 miles of light rail from Northgate to Lynnwood, a project approved by voters in 2008 and scheduled to open in 2023. Machines building that relatively simple segment, with no tunnels or elevated trackways, would emit 7,500 tons of carbon dioxide for every mile of track. Sound Transit's estimate leaves out the carbon emitted in making the concrete and other materials used to build the line.

The cement that holds concrete together is a major contributor to climate change. Currently, a single cement plant — the Ash Grove Cement facility by the West Seattle Bridge — puts out 9 percent of all of Seattle's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the city's Office of Sustainability and Environment.  

"That takes a lot of carbon to make concrete, to make steel," MacDonald said. "So we are going to go backwards with carbon long before we get to the point where Sound Transit 3 might take us frontwards, though not very much."

"It's been something the industry is conscious of, and we're trying to work on," Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick said. He said alternative types of cement that incorporate waste products from burning coal and making steel can reduce cement's climate impact by 20 percent. 

Patrick said the Lynnwood light-rail project will require contractors to track how carbon-intensive their cement mixes are. Though Sound Transit has no plans to require contractors to use climate-friendly cement, Patrick said the agency is considering giving contractors incentives to do so.

Unlikely crusader

MacDonald knows concrete and megaprojects, though he might be an unlikely climate advocate. For nearly seven years, as the head of the Washington State Department of Transportation, he was the state's chief highway builder.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Former Washington Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald", "fid": "131293", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201611/DSCN9527.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo / John Ryan"}]]I asked MacDonald, now retired, if he had any misgivings about building so many highways and helping so many cars keep putting out greenhouse gases.

"Every one of us ought to be able to say their views of climate change have changed dramatically," he said. "When I go back and think of what I was doing in 2005, I don't regard myself as having had one clue about climate."

McDonald said he's become passionate about climate change since retiring.

"This is an existential crisis for human beings on earth," he said. "It's now."

On Thursday, United Nations scientists said the next three years are the world's "last chance" to get emissions under control enough to avoid dangerous levels of warming.  

Most important vote?

Whatever benefits would come with Sound Transit 3, most of them won't come soon. Most of the $54 billion measure's light-rail projects won't be up and running until the 2030s.

As for the claim that ST3 is the most important vote on your ballot for the climate: The carbon tax initiative, whatever its other merits or flaws, would make a much bigger and faster dent in the state's carbon emissions.

The Washington Commerce Department estimates the measure would knock 2 percent off the state's emissions by 2018 and 11 percent over the next quarter century. Backers of I-732 say the measure's gradually increasing tax on carbon, offset by lowered taxes on sales and manufacturing, will spur deeper emission cuts.

And while pollsters give Donald Trump little chance of defeating Hillary Clinton in Washington state, the presidential race does highlight the starkly different ways the United States might address climate change over the next four years.

Trump says climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese and says he will pull the U.S. out of the international climate accord that officially took effect on Friday. Clinton says she wants to make America a clean-energy superpower.

Whatever choices voters make this month, Washington state will still be a long way from meeting its targets for deep reductions in carbon dioxide emissions to help stabilize the world's rapidly changing climate.

"We remain in a race against time," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Friday.

Year started with KUOW: 2009