‘We’re way behind on transit’ – but there’s still hope for light rail: Mayor talks West Seattle transportationJune 12, 2013 at 11:47 am | In Transportation, West Seattle news, West Seattle politics | 33 Comments
(Mayor McGinn at Diva Espresso on Tuesday; photo by WSB’s Patrick Sand)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Though you haven’t heard much about it lately, there’s still a chance West Seattle will get light rail, some years down the line.
Mayor Mike McGinn came to West Seattle on Tuesday afternoon to get that message out, and we took the opportunity to ask him about other issues related to West Seattle’s transportation challenges.
It was his third visit to West Seattle in a week, and tonight will be his fourth visit in eight days, as the 34th District Democrats decide who to endorse for this year’s election races, including the one in which he’s vying for re-election against eight opponents. His series of visits began June 4th with the Madison Middle School briefing on dental care for students citywide and continued Sunday as he breakfasted at Chelan Café with five community activists.
That brings us to Tuesday afternoon.
The mayor and two staff members – SDOT transit expert Michael James and communicator Aaron Pickus – came to Diva Espresso in The Triangle to offer a West Seattle-specific briefing on the state of light-rail planning, though the conversation turned to other things.
He said that after talking to West Seattleites – including the group with whom he had breakfast on Sunday – he realized people here might not be aware that light rail is at least a bit beyond pipe-dream status.
We recorded the entire briefing/discussion on video – keep in mind it was at a busy coffee shop, so you’ll hear the espresso machinery in the background now and then:
If you don’t have time to listen, the key points are ahead:
For the big picture, the mayor says, unquestionably, “We’re way behind on transit” – regionally, not just in Seattle, let alone just in West Seattle, and that’s what he sees as the key flaw in the transportation/traffic picture.
For the light-rail component, he acknowledges that so much talk about it has focused on areas aside from West Seattle that he fears people here are not aware that it is being discussed for the next Sound Transit ballot measure – “ST 3″ – is planned. “I don’t know that people are aware that Sound Transit is doing a high-capacity-transit study (starting this summer)” involving West Seattle.” (He is on the Sound Transit board, by the way.)
Online, it’s easy to find a March 2013 Sound Transit document listing the nine “corridors” that are being studied for possible future expansion, including Downtown Seattle-West Seattle-Burien. The document includes this map:
A study is, of course, no guarantee of a light-rail line here. But it’s a glimmer of hope that West Seattle might be included in a ST 3 ballot measure, and he hopes some will see that as heartening, particularly since the board voted late last year to accelerate studies including the one for West Seattle that weren’t even scheduled to launch until 2015. That followed some grumbling here and elsewhere about an earlier decision to put the ST Ballard study on an even-faster track – the other half of what once was to be the Seattle Monorail corridor.
The mayor says he’s not oblivious to that. “There was a plan to bring a monorail to West Seattle, and people – rightfully – feel discouraged at how that turned out,” so he wanted to reiterate that all hope is not lost.
Of course, there’s the matter of money: “They would unquestionably need a new revenue source.” And the matter of how light rail would get over the Duwamish River to serve West Seattle would require plenty of revenue. “But this is the venue for how” it will be discussed – in the prism of planning for the next Sound Transit ballot measure.
Let’s say that measure does include a West Seattle light-rail plan. Even on the fastest of fast tracks, we wouldn’t be riding it for more than a decade. So when the light-rail talk ebbed yesterday, we asked – what’s on the nearer horizon to improve the transportation picture for our area?
The mayor says he’s been working for more reliable transportation funding in cooperation with other leaders around the region, and part of that effort, he said, led to the “local options” proposal that went to the Legislature (but is still stuck there). “For more frequent service, Metro needs more dollars,” and, to support that service, SDOT funding for road and signal work. “The more dollars, we have, the more we can do to speed the routes.”
He mentioned the Transit Master Plan repeatedly during the conversation; it was adopted this past spring.
Overall, he contends he’s paid more attention – and paid more, period – to transportation. “I’ve actually increased General Fund support to transportation over the past couple years.” He mentioned money channeled back into maintenance and smaller projects, and made a point of mentioning the supplemental-budget proposal that would, among other things, address the 47th/Admiral safety issue, also ticking off other spending items that have come up during his administration, such as the city’s contribution to the new South Park Bridge.
We asked about the proverbial big picture – is anyone really looking at it, with regards to transportation capacity and needs, with thousands of new apartments coming to West Seattle, as we are reporting here just about every day?
The mayor’s reply: “We’re behind on transit.” The Transit Master Plan process, he noted, showed that regional connections are working but “we don’t do a good job of connecting our neighborhoods.” But: “The counterpoint I would make is, we’re very fortunate in this city that we’re attracting jobs … and that economic activity helps fuel the investments that we make” in streets, even though the investments that can be afforded so far are “not enough,” and he wishes the state would help more.
Bringing it back around to our original question, he notes, development is determined by zoning. Yes, but, we asked again, who’s looking at the big picture, in terms of transportation effects, rather than just reviewing each project as a one-off? The problem, in his view, remains, “We’ve neglected basic infrastructure. … We have a lot of work to do to catch up.” Budgets and capital programs also are reflections of the big picture. And then he threw in “It’s one reason why I’ve always been skeptical of these massive mega-projects – they soak up capital. … It’s gotten me in trouble once in a while when I raise questions about these mega-projects.” But he says he’s hopeful that the completion of not-so-megaprojects … Mercer and Spokane St. Viaduct are among those he listed, as well as the downtown waterfront … will “lay the groundwork for future generations” to be in better shape than we are now.
We asked about impact fees for development, often brought up by WSB commenters. He contends that there are some de-facto impact fees now – not for transportation, though, as the priority has been historically to have such fees go back into “affordable housing.” He also contends that there’s not enough “profit in new development” to charge fees that would make a major dent in unmet transportation needs – if such fees were too high, it could discourage new development. But he said he’s not necessarily opposed to the concept, and added that he also favors setting aside other “pots of money” from other areas of the city budget – project savings, for example, as happened with the Spokane Street Viaduct – for community projects. (Listen to his full answer, 24 minutes into our video.)
Before the conversation wrapped up, we also asked about the potential future Bridging the Gap levy, likely ahead in 2015, when the current nine-year transportation levy expires, and the mayor indicated there’s a lot up in the air right now before that potential 2015 levy is shaped.
SIDE NOTE: Before he left for another appointment elsewhere in the city, we asked about the status of the Seattle Police surveillance cameras installed and awaiting an activate-or-not decision, from Fauntleroy to Alki to Harbor Island to Shilshole. He replied that he expects the issue to come back to the Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee in the City Council (chaired by Councilmember Bruce Harrell, one of his eight opponents) before his final yay-or-nay.
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