The Seattle City Council should seek clarity for taxpayers about Mayor Ed Murray’s Move Seattle plan.
IN 2006, then-Mayor Greg Nickels proposed the biggest levy in Seattle history — $544 million over nine years — with a simple message: It would cut the backlog in basic street maintenance in half.
The Bridging the Gap plan was eventually whittled down to $365 million. It paved 225 miles of roadway. The maintenance backlog has actually tripled since then as the city became more sophisticated about tracking street needs. The levy also helped pay for the Mercer Street project, but robbed funding promised for a new and needed congestion-relieving Lander Street overpass in Sodo, which wasn’t built.
Voters are now being asked for another record-setting transportation levy — $930 million over nine years. Like Bridging the Gap, Mayor Ed Murray’s Move Seattle levy makes big promises — 180 miles to be paved, doubled spending on bike infrastructure, new transit corridors, hundreds of blocks of sidewalks and planning for a Lander Street overpass.
But as with Bridging the Gap, this new levy needs some skeptical inquiry before a final proposal is slated for the November ballot. The Seattle City Council has that opportunity this week.
The size of Move Seattle is breathtaking. The property-tax bill for a $450,000 house would nearly double, to about $275 a year. That won’t help rapidly escalating rents or middle-class homeowners dealing with rising home values.
The council should also put this request in context to big measures likely headed to the ballot soon. The Legislature is considering a $15 billion transportation package — history suggests it would be put to a referendum. Sound Transit is preparing a $15 billion expansion on the ballot next year. Seattle also needs to leave taxpaying capacity to bring its small prekindergarten program to scale citywide.
Seattle is the city that doesn’t say no to taxes. Move Seattle, the Legislature and Sound Transit are counting on that.
Seattle is the city that doesn’t say no to taxes. Move Seattle, the Legislature and Sound Transit are counting on that.”
Councilmember Nick Licata, on the council’s left wing, suggests reducing it to a $600 million hit on property owners. There are trade-offs to a smaller plan. Murray’s staff rightly notes that this plan takes Seattle two decades into the future, when 120,000 more residents and 115,000 more jobs are projected to be added. And Seattle is not adding any more lanes, so investments for more transit, pedestrians and bikes are one way to keep people moving.
The council, which is in campaign season, should also know that voters want accountability. Move Seattle currently has no legally binding commitments about how the money is spent — maintenance versus transit improvements, for example. It should. Absent explicit percentages, it would be too easy for City Hall to shift the money around, as happened with the Lander Street overpass.
The council should also be skeptical about Move Seattle’s premise of spreading a lot of money over a lot of projects. The Ballard and Magnolia bridges both need replacement, but Move Seattle does not do enough to fully finish designs for new bridges, let alone build them. It also banks on future federal funding, which is a shaky bet given Congress’ continuing budget dysfunction.
Most important is the implicit message of Move Seattle that residents will want to get out of their cars and use another mode. Congestion is a daily, soul-crushing experience here. Move Seattle promises $50 million in smarter traffic-signal technology, but also promises to remove traffic lanes. The mayor and the council should be explicit about what the Move Seattle levy will do, and not do, for the vast majority of trips Seattleites take — in their cars.
At nearly $1 billion, the Move Seattle levy promises a lot. For that amount, it has to deliver.