Chances are, the next mayor of Seattle will sustain the city’s 21st century momentum away from easy driving, to favor buses, bicycles and pedestrians.
The top candidates favor cheaper access to public transit. Some wholeheartedly endorse zero fares throughout the city. Others suggest a limited ride-free area, free shuttles to transit hubs, or more discounts for low-income residents.
Promises are easier made than kept. Outgoing Mayor Jenny Durkan entered office saying Seattle would collect congestion-pricing tolls downtown by 2021. That idea still hasn’t gained traction, even with a new crop of candidates.
Sound Transit 3 light-rail expansions, currently $6 billion to $12 billion short, are stalled pending a so-called “realignment” to trim or delay projects. No candidates propose cuts — especially before knowing if the Biden administration will send the Sound Transit another $2 billion in federal infrastructure dollars.
Here are a few issues where candidates displayed special passion, or described solutions, during recent interviews.
Solving Seattle’s homelessness crisis is “going to take some money,” said Colleen Echohawk. If money is available, she would explore the idea of free transit by consulting with communities impacted most — but she is not committing to the idea yet.
She would bring to every transportation discussion a lens of mobility justice, where she emphasizes the opinions of people most marginalized by the transportation systems.
Echohawk, the former director of Chief Seattle Club, which provides housing and services to Native people, would seek to reward residents in the community with stipends or gift cards because “we need to be investing in their time and what it takes for them to get out to a meeting.”
She would also expect to delay any implementation of congestion pricing, or charging people to drive into downtown Seattle, for a couple of years.
Her main areas of focus for transportation are addressing maintenance needs for bridges and getting people out of cars and into public transit.
Transit fares ought to be eliminated, says Jessyn Farrell, former executive director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, an industry funded nonprofit that promotes transit growth and ballot measures.
“To me a great transportation system is really fundamentally about being able to get where you want to go, and fare is a barrier,” Farrell said. “Secondly, it [zero fare] removes some of the conflicts around fare enforcement, so as we’re trying to achieve a more equitable and safe transportation system for everyone, including Black and brown members of our community,” she said.
“And finally, we’ve done experiments with virtually free transit and they’ve gone really well.” The prepaid U-Pass funded by the University of Washington and the former downtown ride-free zone removed in 2012 attracted new riders, Farrell said.
Without that money, how do they pay for full operations?
Farrell suggested a joint city-county car-tab fee increase, and redeploying bus-service hours as light-rail replaces certain Metro routes.
She proposes 100 miles of permanent Stay Healthy Streets, partially barricaded so people can easily walk, bike or roll, along with more bike lanes and 100 more miles of bus lanes.
M. Lorena González
Seattle residents would be able to get to school, medical appointments and grocery stores in a short walk or bicycle ride, under the 15-minute city concept M. Lorena González envisions.
The City Council president said she would prioritize projects from the 2015 Levy to Move Seattle that have been promised but not yet completed in a new potential levy and then, with leftover money, address a new list of transportation needs that would allow residents to get around town without driving.
She envisions making streets safer and more comfortable by reducing the number of general traffic lanes on roads, eliminating parking in certain areas and making some streets only open for pedestrians — especially those with high collision rates.
In particular, she wants to eliminate driving within Pike Place Market and around parts of Volunteer Park and get rid of cut-through traffic on Stay Healthy and Keep It Moving streets.
She wants to enforce traffic rules through speed cameras that automatically ticket violators. That would require a change in state law, which limits speed cameras to school zones.
González said she supports bus-only lane enforcement cameras to make transit run faster.
Pointing to a forehead scar, Bruce Harrell says a car struck him as a child in the Central District, and he needed hospital treatment. So road safety is personal.
He takes credit for lowering speed limits to 25 mph on Rainier Avenue South through Columbia City in 2015, following horrific crashes, when he represented southeast Seattle on the City Council.
“A lot of the constituents that I address are car dependent and heavily reliant on fossil-fuel vehicles and they have to get from A to B. And when I talk about road diets or multimodal forms of transportation — bike lanes or transit lanes — people want to get to a place in a hurry,” he said. “I remain committed to Vision Zero, and so I’ve had some very difficult conversations over the years.”
Vision Zero is a pledge to eliminate traffic casualties by 2030. Last year 24 people were killed and 144 severely injured in Seattle crashes.
Harrell calls for more speed enforcement cameras, with consent by neighbors and Metro. “While many people do not like it, the data suggest that it does normalize slower speeds, and removes the bias of police officers, which is a good thing.”
Harrell said an education campaign is needed to normalize obeying speed limits. “What’s important is people realize the pain families have felt, and the inspiration we can draw from saving lives,” he said.
Andrew Grant Houston
An architect by trade, Andrew Grant Houston says he walks the walk — meaning he doesn’t own a car and walks (or bikes or takes transit). As mayor, he would create a city that caters to people like him.
His first priority would be to develop a new, citywide vehicle license fee to fund more frequent bus service in Seattle, followed by a countywide measure shortly after.
“The best version of service is when you’re able to go to your nearest bus stop and not even have to think about when the next bus is coming,” he said.
But for big projects, he would seek more state and federal funding. Money from the city’s new $20 car-tab fee should cover no more than 50% of bridge maintenance, he said, because “these are really regional and interstate connections.”
He would instead use local dollars to fulfill promises from the Levy to Move Seattle.
However, Grant Houston wants to move away from relying heavily on a vehicle-license fee to pay for Sound Transit projects. More upfront planning and being clear about where exactly rail lines will go would save some time and energy, he said.
“The longer you wait, the more expensive it’s going to get,” he said.
Seattle has gotten away from being “service oriented,” said Art Langlie, an electrical-contracting executive from the Broadview area.
“I drive 130th, which goes right by the city’s repair lot, and that road is in absolutely horrible condition,” he said. “In the last year I’ve lost two tires, and two windshields from the rocks which get tossed up, which maybe one time were part of the pavement.”
He predicts other neighborhoods could become isolated like West Seattle, where runaway cracks forced an emergency bridge closure since March 2020.
“Will it be the University Bridge, the Ballard Bridge, the Fremont Bridge? What will come next?” Langlie said.
“Almost all the drawbridges are 100 years old and are just one inspection away from having a similar fate,” he said. The city’s new $20 car-tab fee, taking effect July 1, should be dedicated to bridge preservation, he said.
He would ban general traffic in the Pike Place Market and block some downtown streets in evenings to support outdoor restaurants.
Langlie fears that post-pandemic, travelers will avoid buses downtown, because they don’t feel they’re a clean, safe environment. “I think people need to know when they get on there, they’re not going to be assaulted.”
When the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) rebuilt 23rd Avenue near Garfield High School a few years back, the city reduced four lanes to a single southbound lane during construction. Lance Randall, a city economic-development specialist, heard complaints by small business owners, whose customers were blocked.
Randall said he called a contractor who said another lane could be maintained, and then SDOT. “They were just not very receptive to it,” Randall said. Eventually the city paid merchants $650,000 in relief money.
“We need to be more mindful and strategic when doing these projects,” he said.
Randall opposes eliminating transit fares. “It sounds good when you’re campaigning, but in reality, we have expenses we need to cover,” he said. He’s open to making a limited free-ride zone downtown.
The next mayor will probably craft a 2024 property-tax levy for transportation, to replace Move Seattle. Randall suggests a fund to fix and maintain bridges and a 25-year infrastructure plan to steadily replace aging roads, bridges and sidewalks.
As for Sound Transit’s projected funding shortfall, he said, “The best thing to do is pull together a regional summit of our major businesses and corporations, explain the situation, and see if they’re willing to help us by digging into their corporate foundations and helping us to fill the gap.”
The next mayor of Seattle should be creative in seeking federal and state money to fund maintenance for bridges or close revenue gaps for Sound Transit, Casey Sixkiller said.
He’s gained financial understanding as a deputy mayor of Seattle and chief operating officer of King County, as well as working on legislative staffs for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and former U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott.
“We have a lot of bridge infrastructure across the city that is aging and needs to be on a sustainable path to be replaced,” he said.
“We can have a community-engaged process, and also continue to make a down payment on addressing our bridge infrastructure needs across the city.”
In his view, Sound Transit is facing a cash-flow issue and he wants to be careful “that we don’t rush something” in regard to cutting or delaying projects. He expects the economy to rebound, and Seattle could receive money from the Biden administration.
Sixkiller said transit needs to be reliable and more accessible, though he’d rather focus on expanding current programs such as a $1.50 low-income fare and free student fares rather than make all transit free.
“I think people should pay what they can afford to pay,” he said.