Election 2009, City Council Position 8 closeup: Mike O’Brien

checkbox.jpgThis morning, we resume our city-candidate closeups; we took a look at them all before the primary election, and with the general election nearing, we’re checking back in with the finalists in five city races – mayor and council. We’ve already looked at mayor (Mike McGinn here, Joe Mallahan here) and City Council Position 6 (Nick Licata here, Jessie Israel here); this morning, it’s City Council Position 8..

By Jack Mayne
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

Mike O’Brien says he wants a Seattle City Council seat for reasons including opposition to the deep-bore tunnel plan for replacing part of The Viaduct and consideration of tolling major thoroughfares in the city to discourage car usage and raise money for projects like creating a transportation-and-people corridor along the city’s waterfront.

O’Brien is a former chair of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club and spent a decade as chief financial officer at the Stokes Lawrence law firm. He shares opposition of the deep-bore tunnel plan with fellow ex-Sierra Club chair Mike McGinn, who’s running for mayor. O’Brien faces Robert Rosencrantz in the Position 8 race.

He has said tolls could be used “everywhere” but moderates that a bit under questioning.

He acknowledges that tolling could simply force traffic to move from a tolled thoroughfare to a neighborhood street. “We need to be certain of the project before we add tolls,” he says. “I would think that the first place tolls would be used in the 520 bridge project, but on the I-90 bridge.” Tolling both bridges would keep traffic balanced, he says.

He says he would consider tools in many cases only after ensuring that traffic problems would not be exacerbated. He also suggests studying whether tolls can be used as a congestion management tool, something done in other parts of the world.

O’Brien campaigned against the roads-and-transit plan that would have allocated money to build new highways but backed a second and successful ballot measure that provided money for light rail and public transit but not for highways.

He served on the Stakeholder Advisory Committee that worked to help develop a plan to replace the Central Waterfront section of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The advisory panel recommended options including one calling for improvements to I-5, public transit expansion, and investments in surface streets.

“This would cost about $1 billion less than the $4.2 billion deep-bore tunnel project that city and state leaders now favor,” he says. He joins mayoral candidate McGinn in opposing the tunnel, which he says fails to “address our city’s most important transportation needs.”

He opts instead to support widening and upgrading Interstate 5 and Alaskan Way, combining that with an upgraded transit system. Transit ridership is up, he says, “because you make a decision on how you get from Point A to Point B and considering how long it will take to drive, what is it going to cost for gas and parking, and if parking is available versus how convenient is transit, and probably the social factor of whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. We weigh these options a lot.

“Seattle has a lot of work to do on its transit system, there are a lot of routes that run quite well and the light rail system is quite robust,” O’Brien says. “I have heard people way that, for a bus system, King County has one of the best — if you are going downtown. We need to make the investments to make connections easier and obvious.”

He said he would have the city’s transportation system prioritize freight and transit to produce a scale on which to judge the success of the Seattle Department of Transportation. “In each corridor I want to know how many people are moving, how many trucks are moving and I would like to see that boosted 10 percent,” he says. “Let’s work with Metro to space out the bus stops a little more so they are not stopping every two blocks. Let’s work on some other methods to speed up the bus system, like platform payment systems.”

Then he suggests incremental fixes on streets can improve transit times to accommodate more people moving through at a faster rate. “If we can do a few targeting things to make our buses more efficient, maybe we can have three trips an hour instead of two without buying a new bus, without a new driver — really no additional cost,” he says. He says he is not talking about added money, just about making the Metro system in the city more efficient.

O’Brien says he likes the idea of streetcars, but is not sure they are the most cost-efficient way to provide transit options. He prefers adding modern trolley buses to the fleet to use the network of electric wires already in place and avoiding the need to install rails. “One thing we have to do, whether it is streetcars or buses, is to get them out of traffic. They have to have priority so they are not stuck in traffic. We can’t just move congestion for one system to another. There has to be a clear advantage.”

On parking meters, O’Brien says there is there is more demand for parking spaces than supply. And if the city charges, he says. “I agree that the revenue collected should stay in the district where collected. We should be investing that in transit improvements, sidewalks and benches on the street.”

He says the city should spend more time talking with business in a neighborhood, to explain what they intent of parking kiosks or limited time is, rather than simply forcing it through as some believe had happened in Seattle in recent years. You don’t lead by mandating things, you lead by talking with people and explaining the intent.”

O’Brien, a Fremont-area resident, hesitated when asked what he knows of the problems facing West Seattle.

“I think of West Seattle almost like an island, I know it is connected but there are limited ways to get back and forth,” he says. “The sense I have is that the people of West Seattle like that separation. They chose to be in this place that is isolated, but when I don’t want to be separated, it is really hard to connect. I was on a bike bombing down Admiral Way so I didn’t have to wait in traffic, but it was backed way up there,” O’Brien says. He uses that to suggest that creating more traffic lanes leads only to more traffic, not less congestion.

He does support the West Seattle route of the King County Water Taxi and the shuttles that get people from the region to the dock.

O’Brien added his voice to other council candidates and incumbents opposing Mayor Greg Nickels‘ reported refusal to let city staff talk freely with councilmembers. “I appreciate that the mayor is the head of the executive branch, but the City Council’s job is to give oversight to those departments and the executive branch and we need to be able to communicate. I think the city would benefit from a relationship where the mayor and the council saw each other as assets and try to work together, as opposed to saying we are competitors and we are fighting each other. We have some power over the executive branch and we need to exercise that power,” O’Brien says.

One of the most difficult things facing a new council member is trying to represent everyone in the city. “I want to have my cabinet of advisers represent not just geographical diversities but all other sorts of diversities throughout the city so I can get feedback on how this or that affects neighborhoods,” he says.

O’Brien says people evaluate the world around them through their own eyes, so he wants to broaden that view with others.

He wants to be on the Council because of the critical decisions that city is facing and those decisions will “really affect what Seattle grows into in the next 10 or 20 years. I want to be part of that dialogue.”

Mike O’Brien’s page in the online city Voters’ Guide (text and video) is here. His campaign website is here.

1 Reply to "Election 2009, City Council Position 8 closeup: Mike O'Brien"

  • wseye October 24, 2009 (8:46 am)

    Ouch. If Mike O’Brien gets elected we are doomed to further isolation from the rest of the city. Unfortunately he has no understanding of the practical realities of transportation.

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