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City of Seattle

August 9, 2:40 PM click here to comment > 28

For Rail, Be Bold

As the City Council deliberates on a new transportation measure, it is important to recognize that there is an opportunity here for expanded rail transit in Seattle — if the council can be bold.

First some background. In 2010, the City Council and I appointed a Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee, to advise the city on how to finance its transportation needs, now and in the future. At the same time, the Transit Master Plan process was launched, also advised by a diverse set of residents.

The Transit Master Plan showed that Seattle’s greatest weakness was connecting neighborhoods to each other. It identified fifteen corridors overall, five of which will need high capacity service – and four of these are suitable for some form of rail transit. To some degree, we’ve all known this, but the rigorous approach of the Transit Master Plan clearly identifies the best corridors, and points to the better ways to serve each corridor. In a number of cases, it points to rail, specifically a concept that has come to be known as “rapid streetcar.” Unlike Sound Transit’s Link light rail, it operates in the right of way, making it cheaper and faster to build. To ensure it moves rapidly, it has high priority in the right of the way.

For the distances served — neighborhood to neighborhood — it looks like the right choice for a number of corridors in Seattle. That includes Ballard to downtown via Fremont, the University District to downtown via Eastlake, and linking those to Seattle’s two initial streetcar lines to South Lake Union, the International District/Chinatown and Capitol Hill. Other cities have already demonstrated the promise of this approach, like Portland with its MAX system.

MAX train running in street right of way in downtown Portland

Until now, Seattle has always thought we could only afford more rail the Sound Transit way – wait for a regional vote, and take decades to build it. But for local transit, the Citizens Transportation Advisory Committee pointed to a different way: Use our local taxing authority to create a dedicated transit fund to expand neighborhood to neighborhood high capacity transit.

The committee recommended an $80 VLF. Much of it goes to catching up on deferred maintenance, which I support. 49% percent goes to implement the Transit Master Plan, to catch up on our deferred transit needs. As a permanent funding source, this could fund the following in the next ten years: planning and alternatives analysis for all five high capacity corridors in the Transit Master Plan, planning and construction for connecting the two streetcar lines through downtown, speed and reliability improvements on half of all non-high capacity transit corridors, and substantial upgrades to our electric trolley bus infrastructure. Over the next twenty years, we could make good on the Transit Master Plan’s stated need to accommodate substantially more travelers on each of the high capacity corridors the Plan identified.

But here is the problem. The City Council is only considering a VLF for a limited amount of time, after which it expires. For this amount of money, all you can do is study a single corridor. You cannot finance long term infrastructure with a short term financing plan. You cannot get in the queue for federal, regional, or state funds because there will be no source of funds for us to put up our local match. The Transit Master Plan will join the Pedestrian and Bicycle Master Plans as nice plans, without serious funding.

There is a better way, and here is where boldness is required. If the VLF is ongoing, it becomes a steady source of revenue that can be borrowed against to build rail that will serve us for decades. It is how Sound Transit finances Link light rail, by borrowing against its statutory taxing authority. It is how the Washington State Department of Transportation finances major projects. It is how Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is planning to build a major expansion of rail in his city. In fact, even Seattle does it. We put into place a permanent parking tax that we bonded against to pay for the Spokane Street Viaduct and the Mercer Corridor, among others.

So, the question is now on the Council — can it do for transit what it does for major road projects, and commit to a long term funding source that will begin building the rail system Seattle needs and wants? If the answer is yes, we will begin the work of expanding rail to connect neighborhoods to each other, to downtown, and to the Link Light Rail system.

If the answer is no, I will not stop working to fulfill my commitment to expand rail in Seattle. But it means we’ll have to keep coming back for the capital funding for transit, so that the Seattle Transit Master Plan does not become a pretty plan gathering dust on a shelf. And so that Seattle will realize its transit future.

Posted by: Mayor Mike McGinn


Comment from AJ
Time August 9, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Why should Seattle run against the trend by focusing heavily on freeway and road investments and not transit? Transit is struggling and even the last city in the transit pack, San Antonio, is coming out with ambitious rail and transit plans.

Seattle’s future needs futuristic solutions, not solutions that were all the rage when the Space Needle wasn’t even a napkin sketch

Pingback from Action Alert: Testify on the TBD | Columbia
Time August 9, 2011 at 5:01 pm

[…] rail engineering for the money, or not.Mayor McGinn, who has no formal role in TBD legislation, has come out for the full $80 as a permanent funding source to enable serious progress on thehigh-capacity projects.As promised, […]

Comment from Doug S
Time August 9, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Seattle needs a light rail system. It will cut pollution. Reduce greenhouse gasses. Take cars off the highways. Thus reducing need for foreign oil

Comment from Anthony Scott
Time August 9, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Enjoy your last term in office, McSchwinn. (And maybe your butt-boy D. Hiller should update his resume, too. His future potential employers will probably read it.)

Comment from Claus Gehner
Time August 9, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Well, this is interesting — back to the mid 70’s when I was a student of Urban Transportation Planning at the University of Washington. This looks similar to a rail proposal rejected by the voters then – and the UMTA moneys went to Atlanta.
Seattle seems to be incapable of getting its act together to present modern, efficient public transportation. Back then, Seattle Transit was morphed into the old Metro Transit. Then Metro Transit was taken over by King County and is now operating largely redundantly with Sound Transit. We tried Monorail, which was plagued by stupidity and fraud. We are building light rail links and now we are starting something new again???
Lets just get ONE thing right before we start something new.

Comment from Michael
Time August 9, 2011 at 7:57 pm

It seems like the City is now making a lot more money from parking, with 2 hours extra money per day, higher rates and now “Denver boots” to ensure payment of tickets.

Why is none of that cash earmarked for transit? It seems like it SHOULD be.

Comment from jack whisner
Time August 9, 2011 at 9:10 pm

yes, the TBD board should ask the voters for approval of the $80 VLF; yes, Seattle needs to improve sidewalks and transit; but no, the Mayor has not made a case for connecting the two non rapid streetcar lines through downtown; nor has the case been made for streetcar on Eastlake; note that corridor already has a relatively new electric traction transit mode that can accomodate the demand; Seattle has the power to improve trolleybus flow. The $80 VLF is just the first step in transport funding; we also need to fund the seawall, $1 billion in sidewalks, a new Magnolia Bridge, and more pavement management.

Comment from Jon Morgan
Time August 9, 2011 at 11:49 pm

I love transit, especially rail. I support building out the approved streetcar network, and I don’t think I have a problem with borrowing against permanent tax revenue to fund transit. But to me, the very key, telling line here was the one about the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans–excellent works that people put many hours of work and effort into, but which are almost totally unfunded. Where is the money to implement roughly $250M of bike projects and $840M of pedestrian projects (only counting the top tier of five)? Seattle’s urban core has very old pedestrian facilities badly needing repair, while north, southeast, and southwest Seattle have many streets with no sidewalk or pedestrian walkway at all. Without pedestrian and bike infrastructure, people can’t get to and from transit in the first place. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here; we should be borrowing against ongiong tax revenue to fund major bike and pedestrian investments, not just to build a streetcar network when Eastlake doesn’t even want their line. CTAC’s recommendations underinvest in bike and pedestrian infrastructure already. Let’s reduce the imbalance rather than making it worse.

Comment from Dietrich
Time August 10, 2011 at 12:15 am

Honestly I find your reference to TriMet’s MAX lines disingenuous. Yes the trains run in the right of way downtown but they are primarily link segments in dedicated right of ways very similar to the Sound transit model. Additionally they are part of a larger coordinated system run by a single transit authority.
What you are suggesting is akin to Portland adding a train that went between downtown and the pearl district and one from downtown to Mt Tabor. All run by a new Portland Transit authority and not TriMet.
Tell me why you think Seattle needs 3 separate uncoordinated transit systems. How is it an efficient use of our money?
I would love world class transit but your “Bold bet” wouldn’t get us there. Transit in the right of way is a band-aid, not a solution. A bold bet would be to build an honest to goodness transit system separate from the current vehicular system. A bold bet would be a single regional transit system that actually worked and provided safe reliable ubiquitous service such that people would find it suited their needs better than driving. Making driving so unpleasant that our current transit mess looks useful is not a solution. Adding a transit system so the city can check a box and say they are doing something for transit is also not a solution.

Comment from MJC
Time August 10, 2011 at 9:36 am

In the end, it is all about funding. Seattlites embrace the goals of getting out of cars to make intra-city transportation more efficient, reducing our carbon footprint and adding world-class amenities. Now we need to step up and pay. By doing the math, it becomes obvious that a bondable funding source leverages this tax money so that we can compete for federal dollars. Putting the full $80 VLF in place gets us started on doing something in this city.

Comment from Justin R.
Time August 10, 2011 at 9:48 am

I really hope that by the time my little daughter is old enough to enroll at the UW there will be some form of mass transit through this city besides twenty year old buses operated by (and for) the county. West Seattle to UW. Is that possible?

Comment from John
Time August 10, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Would you trust a pitch from a Mayor who said he would not stand in the way of the viaduct replacement during his campaign, then reneged on this pledge, doing everything he can to kill it?

Just look around you-while the number of potholes continue to increase, have you seen much road
Improvements beyond sharrows, bike lanes, and road diets?

Based on observation alone, you can count on any car tab increase to be funneled to Mayor McGinn’s pet projects: bike lanes, and more bike lanes.

Leader more qualified than McGinn have failed to lead and drive transit development, other than Nickels. What makes anyone think that this very abrasive and difficult Mayor has any credibility whatsoever to get transit built in this city????

One final point. Trolley cars used to run throughout most of the arterial cited by the Mayor. They were pulled on favor of “trackless trolleys”, otherwise known as buses. Get a clue, Mayor McGinn, grade separated transit is the real solution. One visit to Portland does not make you an expert in any way whatsoever in how to create time-reliable mobility solutions for Seattle residents.

Pingback from McGinn challenges council to fund rail to Ballard, Fremont more | Seattle News
Time August 10, 2011 at 2:37 pm

[…] Today, Mayor Mike McGinn challenged the Seattle City Council to be bold in financing those two rail lines, as well as lines connecting South Lake Union to the International District and Capitol Hill, in a post to his blog. […]

Comment from Katie Kadwell
Time August 10, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Thank you for your leadership on this issue. I’d like to see this authority folded into ST eventually, and perhaps expanding to 80% for transit, pedestrian, and bicycle improvements over time.

Comment from Dick Burkhart
Time August 10, 2011 at 6:34 pm

To fulfill their promise, streetcars must be frequent (<= 10 minutes) and must operate on streets that are not clogged with other traffic. Usually that means that much current traffic must be moved on to alternate routes, at additional cost. Signal control alone won't do it. But if these conditions can be met, you would get worthwhile in-city transportation. But it still wouldn't match the regional benefits of light rail.

Pingback from Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn favors 20-year car tab fee | Seattle News
Time August 11, 2011 at 10:08 am

[…] a blogpost, the mayor says a minimum 20-year car tab fee would back bonds that could build an extensive rail […]

Pingback from Op-Ed: For Rail, Be Bold (by Mayor McGinn) | The SunBreak
Time August 11, 2011 at 11:39 am

[…] “For Rail, Be Bold,” reprinted by permission from Mayor McGinn’s blog. […]

Comment from joe
Time August 11, 2011 at 12:33 pm

I don’t understand why I have not heard a single person talk about increasing the transit system we already have in place. I would ride the bus if I could expect one every 8 to 12 minutes but, that would not allow the debate to continue for the next decade as is the norm for transit projects in this region. I think we lack anyone that has enough courage to stand behind our current transit system that is already in place. Why do we need to create another system to take people off of the bus?

Comment from vanderleun
Time August 11, 2011 at 1:29 pm

The only rail Seattle needs to see is the one with McGinn riding on it, out of town, at high speed.

Comment from keith abey
Time August 11, 2011 at 2:08 pm

I think this an important measure the move Seattle forward. I fully support this initiative> I would also like to see further increases on downtown parking fees and limitations on downtown parking to encourage more mass transit ridership.

Comment from karen w
Time August 11, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I would love to see a connection to the current street car at South Lake Union. I live in the Montlake neighborhood and would be able to walk up to Eastlake and take it to the U district or downtown. Currently there is limited time parking for park and ride to the trolley starting point, and the parking rates make it an unattractive choice. I have ridden the trolley, it’s comfortable and the view windows are great. It would be a better choice than my car if I could conveniently make a connection and if it made more downtown and some U-District stops.

I applaud the Mayor for his work on bike lanes. I notice much more bike traffic on Eastlake especially during the commute hours since the lanes have been painted green and safety measures implemented. I think we need a variety of transportation options. Although I don’t bike, I think it is a healthy and environmentally friendly transportation choice. It’s also economical for those unable to afford a car, fuel, and insurance.

Many years ago I lived in San Francisco and didn’t need a car, because I could take a bus, a train, Bart (underwater tunnel) or a trolley. Many of the transportation choices ran every 10 minutes, so commuting was easy. So, what’s wrong with having many options and eventually coordinating all of them. Master Plans seldom get built as planned due to the changes in technology and transportation needs along the way. It’s good to have a big picture, but be flexible.

Comment from Scott D
Time August 12, 2011 at 10:56 am

I encourage anyone who supports rail to visit the MOHAI museum. There used to be tons of streetcars going throughout Seattle.

However, the city learned it’s lesson then that it has now forgot. Mainly that the system was super-expensive to maintain and was locked into set routes that couldn’t scale with new demand. A new fangled thing called buses was the answer, they could scale with where the demand was and were much cheaper to maintain.

I would ride the bus more if it wasn’t so crowded that I could barely find a seat on key routes and had more frequency. I know others in the same boat. Shouldn’t the money be spent on a solution that we can implement NOW and not be locked into maintaining routes for years with no/little ridership (South Lake Union Streetcar is a great example!)

Rail maybe the old thing that is now cool again but ultimately it is a waste of money, especially at the prices it costs these days. There are already transit options available for those that want to use them. The idea that all of the sudden a route is served by rail vs. a bus will take people off the road is nonsensical.

Our money would be better spent on other projects including (gasp) better roads.

Comment from Clark
Time August 13, 2011 at 9:43 pm

I actually think this is a pretty good idea. Roads are not the solution for the future. Roads can never keep up with the future populations. But unless you grew up with good public transit then you don’t know how good it can be. Sadly, I’m not a fan of surface solutions unless they have 100% right of way and won’t get blocked by traffic.

I do love visiting Portland and enjoying public transportation but the city will also need to start beefing up on other touchy issues, like keeping homeless people out of Public Transit (no free ride zone would help), and making sure that the new transit can be stopped and haulted by tons of votes.

What I don’t like about this post is that while Mike has a clear idea about being bold he also doesn’t support the Tunnel. The tunnel project is about making a bold change for Seattle. Mike is wasting money and time promoting quibbling over previous leadership. If anything his anti-tunnel stance make me feel that he himself isn’t capable of being ‘bold’.

Comment from Nick
Time August 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm

I’m reading this on my phone. Interesting, important issue. I don’t see a definition of the “VLF” tax in your article.

Comment from Wells
Time August 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm

ROTFLMAO over these poster theatrics!The more confusion the better! This is Mayor McGinn’s best blogpost ever !!
It’s just like Mike to bring humor.
Thanks, Mike, and don’t worry; the bored tunnel bs nonsense is deader than a doorknob. Hurray for Mike McGinn!!!!!!!!!

Comment from Solarevolution
Time August 17, 2011 at 1:02 am

Encitra, one of INIST’s sponsors, has a contract to design a 100% solar (net annual generation) transit system for a city in Sweden at 60º north latitude. Above streets, this automated podcar system is 10X safer, more economical and ultra-efficient, already fully certified by the Swedish Rail Authority. Will Seattle be represented at International Podcar City Conference in Stockholm September 6-8?

Comment from John
Time August 17, 2011 at 10:15 pm

Mayor McGinn: Cars have a future. As long as people find the need to go to and from places without having to share rides and get from point to point faster, cars will be around. Maybe in a different form, running on electricity rather than gas.

I’m sure you’ll never understand the idea that personal transport that is fast and easy to use will always win over pedal power or even transit. Especailly the way you define “rapid” transit. There is no such thing as surface transit that is “rapid”, unless it’s separated from the surface traffic. Your plan doesn’t do that at all.

On top of that, you have no credibility with the business establishment, or the public in general. The remainder of your term is best spent as an exercise trying to understand the error of your ways, and to acknowledge you were wrong. Completely wrong. Even this transit “plan” is wrong. Ride some real subways instead of a bike and get a clue.

Comment from Juno
Time August 18, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Let’s Move Forward on this transit plan, yesterday already!