Seattle City Council leaders Monday dealt Mayor Mike McGinn an election-year rebuff, saying they would not recommend funding for one of his signature issues — studies of a light-rail crossing of the Ship Canal.
The council members also modified McGinn’s request to speed up a study of light rail from Eastlake to the University District, saying they will instead focus on more immediate bus improvements there.
Council Budget Chairman Tim Burgess and Transportation Chairman Tom Rasmussen said they would prioritize safety and maintenance projects, including on East Marginal Way South, where a bicyclist was killed recently, and Northeast 75th Street, where a horrific truck-vs.-pedestrian crash killed two and left two — a mother and her infant — with lengthy recoveries.
Noting that the city has a huge backlog in road and bridge maintenance projects and no funding for future light-rail lines, Burgess said, “We want to focus intensely on safety, maintenance and rubber-tire transit. Those are the most critical needs right now.”
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Rasmussen said the decision not to recommend McGinn’s request for the two light-rail studies was less about the mayor’s priorities and more about timing. Rasmussen cited deteriorating roads and the need to improve existing bus service, as well as the possible 2016 date for a Sound Transit ballot measure.
“We don’t need to begin planning for something that won’t get funding for three years,” he said. “The things we need right now are where we want to put our money.”
McGinn said he was disappointed but that he would continue to work with Sound Transit to advance planning for the rail line to Ballard. He also pledged to include a study of the Ship Canal crossing in his 2014-15 budget.
Funding for a new rail line could be included in a 2016 Sound Transit ballot measure as part of a regional expansion of light rail.
“I will continue to work with council members to include funding for this important project so that we do not miss out on possible capital funding sources like Sound Transit III,” McGinn said in a statement.
Some advocates for the light-rail studies said the city needs additional crossings of the Ship Canal to relieve congestion on existing bridges and to improve freight and bus travel.
“Particularly in summer, with the bridges going up, traffic doesn’t move. We need additional capacity,” said Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association.
The recommendations came as the Budget Committee this week takes up a midyear supplemental-spending bill. The council’s proposed transportation package reallocates some of the $7.5 million in savings from the Spokane Street Viaduct and 2013 debt-service savings.
McGinn has made connecting Seattle neighborhoods by light rail one of his re-election rallying cries. Light rail connecting West Seattle and Ballard also was one of his promises in his 2009 campaign. And his continued championing of alternatives to cars has won him the early endorsement of environmental groups including the Sierra Club and the Cascade Bicycle Club.
But his focus on rail also has drawn criticism from some of his eight challengers. Former City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck has suggested expanded bus rapid transit is a faster and less expensive option.
State Sen. Ed Murray, who chaired the House Transportation Committee for four years and also is in the race for mayor, said he doesn’t think it should be an either/or discussion of rail versus bus.
“Mode wars are counterproductive,” Murray said. “What’s going to move the most people with the best connections? It’s a discussion we need to have with the entire region.”
Lynn Thompson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8305. On Twitter @lthompsontimes