‘We’re way behind on transit’ – but there’s still hope for light rail: Mayor talks West Seattle transportation

(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.

33 Replies to "'We're way behind on transit' - but there's still hope for light rail: Mayor talks West Seattle transportation"

  • JohnM June 12, 2013 (12:32 pm)

    It seems West Seattle transporation has been an issue forever. If this were 40 years ago, your discussion would been about a bridge instead of transit. I recall when they made “improvements” to Spokane St and Mayor Royer called it “the Chevrolet and not the Rolls Royce of fixes” or somthing along those lines. It finally took a bad pilot ramming a ship into the the old bridge to get a new one.

  • B June 12, 2013 (12:34 pm)

    So – nothing new for years, we killed the monorail but wasn’t it a good idea?, we still may lose buses due to funding cuts, but vote for me when I’m up for re-election because I’m thinking of you.

    Did I summarize that right?

  • sam-c June 12, 2013 (12:36 pm)

    thanks for the great report.

    If we are ‘way behind on transit’- why are they installing a streetcar in cap. hill when they already have light rail and buses there, and it’s so dense that it’s easy to walk any-where.
    I don’t get it. Meanwhile, west seattle is ‘WAAAAAAY behind’.

    But it is good to hear that WS is included in the next study… but who knows what that study will lead to.

  • jiggers June 12, 2013 (12:46 pm)

    I know who I am voting out of office…

  • Joe Szilagyi June 12, 2013 (12:54 pm)

    Out of curiosity on that West Seattle to Tukwila/Burien/SeaTac spur–it obviously would seem to be meant for the ferry terminal, but do we know what the idealized eastbound routing from there would be?

    I imagine that Ferry > Fauntleroy > Westwood wouldn’t work beyond Westwood for rail. Roxbury would be the only logical corridor, unless they somehow shot right down Ambaum from Westwood?

  • PigeonPointBen June 12, 2013 (1:04 pm)

    I encourage every West Seattleite to press each of our elected and unelected officials to work towards a useful alternative to the useless and expensive highway 99 deep bore tunnel in accessing the job center of downtown for our community. As difficult as it is to get into the city currently, once that tunnel opens and the viaduct comes down our commutes could take 2 or 3 times as long as currently. Perhaps busses could run along the SODO transit road and into the tunnel? My fear is that I will no longer want to live here but no one will want to buy my home and you and me and all our neighbors will be stuck here until a fix is made, which as this post points out could be more than a decade on the fastest of tracks. We need a real plan well in advance of this upcoming change for the worse. I’ve yet to hear it even mentioned by anyone other than the anti-tunnel campaign those few years ago. Now that it is indeed being built, what are we going to do?

  • Truthteller June 12, 2013 (1:08 pm)

    “We’re way behind” but we have permits out for 1,500 apartment units and on schedule to build the next phase of 700 homes in Highpoint. None of their “plans” are even going to matter. We won’t be able to get out of our streets in the morning. Great planning!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Repeater June 12, 2013 (1:23 pm)

    Still won’t vote for him. Or Harrel.

  • wscommuter June 12, 2013 (1:35 pm)

    McGinn is doing nothing more than pandering for votes right now – offering pablum without substance. Sadly, there is no meaningful push to bring light rail to WS/White Center/Burien, even though it is as natural a corridor for such as any other in the city.

    Truthteller is right on … on the one hand the City is approving permits for high density in WS … without matching it with meaningful transit infrastructure. Even if there were an actual goal of building light rail to WS, etc. now, it would take 10-12 years to be in service, at a minimum. But in the next 10-12 years, we are going to see the triangle and Calif. corridor fill with high density apartments and condos.

    PigeonPointBen … I respectfully disagree with you about the DBT, however. I think commutes will actually be okay – what we’re living through now is far worse than what the end product will be like.

  • KBear June 12, 2013 (1:42 pm)

    Ben, the purpose of the tunnel is not to get to downtown. It’s to go THROUGH downtown, which it will do quite nicely. And it’s a done deal, so live with it.

  • alkiobserver June 12, 2013 (1:43 pm)

    LIght rail throughout the city and surrounding area is long, long overdue. With all the high-density housing going in we will need to make modernizing our infrastructure a priority. Real mass transit (not buses that share the same lanes as cars and bikes) will be one way. I hope this happens sooner than later.

  • Alki Area June 12, 2013 (1:50 pm)

    “the useless and expensive highway 99 deep bore tunnel in accessing the job center of downtown for our community”

    Not to bitch, but technically inaccurate. The ‘tunnel’ has nothing what so ever to do with reaching downtown, from West Seattle or anyway. it’s entire reason for being is to BYPASS downtown entirely, to get from south of downtown to north of downtown without going THROUGH downtown.

    If you need to get downtown to a job, the tunnel has nothing to do with it. You’ll take 99 north and get off right as the edge of downtown (and backup just like the existing exits do, because you can’t feed a hundreds cars into a traffic light and not get backups).

    I’d take the Rapid Ride, ride share or general bus.

    That being said, we WILL eventually have to have true mass transit (separate grade train/monorail/etc) because of growth, just like we had to replace a 2 lane bridge with a 4/6 lane bridge. But timing is a bitch. We’re not QUITE big enough to maybe deserve the expense yet, but ALMOST. Living in that ALMOST time is annoying. If West Seattle hits 80K+ we’ll definitely need dedicated rail.

    • WSB June 12, 2013 (2:04 pm)

      We are past 80,000, FWIW. As you point out, there will be a downtown exit before the tunnel. Also, the 99 situation is part of why the Spokane Street Viaduct was widened, and why the 4th Avenue exit was created. The last few times I had to go downtown in the morning, it was a little sludgier to get down 4th than it used to be, but unless you are going to, say, Lake Union, it’s a good route to get into the heart of downtown – TR

  • G June 12, 2013 (2:16 pm)

    If we get light rail, it needs to be configured so that it minimally disrupts street traffic. Most cities have a combination of elevated and surface light rail.

    But yeah, as much as I hate to admit it, looks like we’ll need it the way WS is growing.

  • PigeonPointBen June 12, 2013 (2:16 pm)

    @ Alki Area; I apologize if my grammar could be improved upon but, yes, I do believe the same point is being made here. The tunnel does nothing to deliver West Seattleites to the downtown job center. In fact it not only costs 4 billion dollars but actually makes accessing downtown much more difficult for single occupant vehicles and busses alike. Instead of multiple downtown exits, as we have now, the tunnel will have a single exit some blocks south of the current ones. If the bus routes are to continue along 99, even in a dedicated lane they will still have to use the one, south of Pioneer Square, exit to get into downtown. The resulting bottleneck and backup will be tremendously worse than currently.

  • Mickymse June 12, 2013 (2:25 pm)

    Don’t blame this guy for voters killing the monorail project, King County Metro not running more buses, and our Legislature failing to fund just about anything. None of that is under the Mayor’s control…

  • East Coast Cynic June 12, 2013 (3:10 pm)

    I’ll say this, from what I’ve heard in the campaign leading to the primary, none of the other mayoral candidates with the exception of McGinn consider West Seattle worthy of attention for Light Rail possibilities.

  • Fiwa Jcbbb June 12, 2013 (3:12 pm)

    I’m still not voting for him, but McSchwinn gets a pass on the monorail. Indeed it was Pugsly Nickels that did nothing while monied interests (led by Howard Wright) and the idiot-in-charge Joel Horn killed the monorail, which dammit is still a good idea. Why is it too much to ask for local pols who understand the difference between Mass Transit and Rapid Transit? Rather than waging a “war on cars” and making life more difficult and more expensive for the non-wealthy who have to drive, we could be making it MORE attractive….and much faster….to get around without a car. Busses and “light rail” that operate on the same roadway are inherently slower.Anyone who’s traveled to a city that has, and has used RAPID transit knows this. That unbelievable Cluster F*** every morning we endure to make the waterfront nicer for rich people would be quite bearable…

  • Azimuth June 12, 2013 (3:17 pm)

    Until we get our rail/subway, hopefully before I retire in 30 years, I’d like to see a handful of transit centers / Park&Rides in W Seattle. The steady erosion of local buses in favor of Rapid Ride means a shift in the way we get to these buses. With the advancing apartment boom in our area, with minimal parking included, will put massive pressure for parking on the residents near the Rapid Ride stops close to these projects. The downtown commuter can park for free or dirt cheap at the parking garage instead. Perhaps the transit center can then possibly become rail stops if we are ever deemed worthy in our pseudo-‘burb.

  • Eric June 12, 2013 (4:44 pm)

    They were such idiots when they voted against the Forward Thrust transit package in the 70’s so the feds gave the money to Atlanta for MARTA. Seattle will forever pay for the voters being cheapskates back then!

  • Curtis June 12, 2013 (6:00 pm)

    PPBEN – The tunnel was never supposed to take you TO downtown. Neither, I might add, were any of the viaduct options. The plan is for you to take 4th Avenue. Yes – PLAN. Spokane to 4th is not a bypass or an overflow route, but the intended replacement for the Viaduct.

    That said, West Seattle deserves, at the minimum, a couple of Tunnel Busses. Beyond that, a West Seattle Streetcar (from Admiral to the Ferry with a quick jaunt to the Triangle and back) and a Light Rail Link downtown via the Stadiums and south to the Airport sure would seem appropriate.

  • Fire Ball June 12, 2013 (6:12 pm)

    Metro has you covered…they just bought 120 new buses @ $800K each….and they want funding on your car tabs. LOL

  • East Coast Cynic June 12, 2013 (6:13 pm)

    Eric +100

  • W June 12, 2013 (8:45 pm)

    Tired of transit being an afterthought in road planning, tired of fancy neighborhoods taking the lion’s share of nice services, while the others wrestle over what’s left like hunger games. We vote for transportation, we use transportation, how has the tradition of politics and incompetence prevailed to the extent that such a basic necessity is constantly in jeopardy? What concerned me was when metro turned to riders to help decide how they might get downtown post viaduct…in other words, routing buses was not part of the grand scheme – there was no plan in place and no provision for that in the reconfiguration of the whole area. oops. I guess we’ll just drive around like we’re a really big, smelly car, that has to stop at every block and pick up anybody who wants a ride before we sit in traffic.

  • js June 12, 2013 (8:45 pm)

    @PigeonPointBen: There will actually be plenty of ways to move through downtown once the tunnel opens. If you don’t take the tunnel you can continue north on a surface street that connects with the downtown street grid better than Alaskan Way does currently. Here’s a WSDOT image looking north from the south portal: http://bit.ly/1by0HUc.

  • Del Martini June 12, 2013 (9:34 pm)

    Appreciate the interview and reporting WSB. Thanks for pressing the Mayor on the subject of the ‘big picture’. Seems very clear that his evasive response on the subject says it all, no one is looking at the big picture, it is all just a market driven timebomb.

  • NeighborMom June 12, 2013 (9:52 pm)

    I’m so pathetic. Just salivating at the mention of light rail!!! If it goes to ANY location outside of Seattle (Everett, Tacoma and the east side seem possible) I’m gonna lose my s–t! Tracy, I’ll be excited to see you put the question to each and every mayoral candidate…

  • dcn June 12, 2013 (10:13 pm)

    I agree with Azimuth. With the loss of direct bus lines to downtown and a move to transit hubs like Westwood, we need, for starters, some park and rides at these transit hubs. In other areas (Ravenna, Northgate, Mercer Island), these park and rides are free and provide people easy access to direct buses to downtown. This could be a fairly doable short-term band-aid to the larger transportation issue that West Seattle has. It would at least make it easier to get downtown for those with cars but who would prefer to or have to bus due to parking issues downtown.

    In the long-term, we need rail. Development in West Seattle is not going to stop. West Seattlites need to push hard for a rail solution. I only hope that our placement at the end of the list on the map above doesn’t mean we are at the bottom of the priority list of potential rail projects.

  • NotYou June 13, 2013 (8:05 am)

    Hooray, McGuinn promised to take the issue of light rail to West Seattle to the voters….Whoops, that was 2009, my mistake.

  • Sue Houlihan June 13, 2013 (9:08 am)

    I find it interesting that nobody mentions to stop
    High Density in West Seattle . Study’s show
    negative affects on community’s. Let’s stop
    High Density in West Seattle!

  • wscommuter June 13, 2013 (10:14 am)

    PPBen … JS is right. When the SR99 and Alaskan Way are redone, we (West Seattle/Burien commuters) will actually have more access points to downtown. Yes, we lose Seneca and Western … but we’ll gain access up Columbia/Cherry, and as SDOT plans now, 1st ave will be timed better (its actually pretty good now). I think if one works at the north end of downtown and depends on Western, it hurts the most. But I don’t buy the doom and gloom. We’re handling the current construction-related blockages pretty well and things will be better when its all done.

  • frequent bus rider June 20, 2013 (11:05 pm)

    Given the choice between a candidate who is a pushing light rail to West Seattle, a candidate who says light rail is really meant for regional mobility (i.e. for the suburbs) and did nothing for transit while Chair of the House Transportation Committee, and a candidate who promises to do everything in his power to block light rail from ever reaching West Seattle, the choice seems pretty clear to me.

  • ej June 21, 2013 (10:04 am)

    Eric +100

Sorry, comment time is over.