On transportation, the two candidates vying to be Seattle’s next mayor agree on a lot: Traffic isn’t getting better soon. We need more transit and bike paths. Free ORCA cards for kids. But they do disagree on a few things.
Hey, Seattle, your next mayor has a message for you: Traffic isn’t getting better anytime soon.
But maybe eventually? Maybe.
“We can make it better, but it’s going to be a battle,” said Jenny Durkan, the former U.S. attorney who won the August mayoral primary. “It’s just math. We have a limited number of space and too many cars and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
2017 Seattle mayoral race
- Jenny Durkan defeats Cary Moon to become Seattle’s first woman mayor since the 1920s
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- Seattle’s millionaire mayoral candidates say they know what it’s like to struggle
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- Seattle mayoral candidates both say the future holds fewer cars. Here’s how they would ease the crunch
- Cary Moon: Urbanist, waterfront activist touts vision for city, faces questions about résumé, accomplishments
- Jenny Durkan: Former U.S. attorney brings experience, high-powered allies, but also draws scrutiny
- Seattle’s first — and only — female mayor was elected in 1926
Her opponent, engineer and urbanist Cary Moon, says much the same. Seattle, both candidates said, does not have a public transit system that can keep up with the city’s growth.
Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.
“Until we get a handle on the housing affordability crisis and we can provide places to live in Seattle for people who work in Seattle, and until we get ahead of, get more transit service, things are not going to get better,” Moon said.
The two candidates agree on a lot, transportation-wise. Seattle’s future is in moving away from cars, driven alone, they say. Both want more transit service, more bus-only lanes, priority for buses at traffic lights and a network of protected bike paths. Both want free ORCA cards for kids under 18 (although neither knows what that would cost).
Neither candidate will commit to either keeping or replacing city Transportation Director Scott Kubly.
Both candidates even claim the same favorite bus route, the No. 2 (Seattle Pacific University to downtown to Madrona Park, via First Hill).
Ask each what sets her apart from her opponent on transportation issues and neither woman hesitates. But neither mentions policy differences. Instead, they point to their résumés.
“Experience and depth of knowledge,” Moon said, citing her work advising the One Center City downtown transportation plan and her experience in planning alternatives — other than a tunnel — for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement.
Moon said she has been working on transportation issues for a long time, “and I’m ready to hit the ground running and get Seattle to make the transition.”
Durkan points to her experience not in transportation, but in running an organization like the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“At some juncture we have to get past planning; we plan, plan, plan, plan, plan,” Durkan said. “I’ve actually taken big projects to get them complete and know what you have to do to actually implement. She’s much more of a planner, I’m much more of a doer.”
Both candidates have endorsements from pro-transit groups: Seattle Subway for Moon and the political affiliate of the Transportation Choices Coalition for Durkan.
Jessyn Farrell, a former state legislator who came in fourth in the mayoral primary, praised Durkan for her detailed proposals to speed up Sound Transit projects and lauded Moon for her emphasis on economic and racial equity in transportation policy.
“Both candidates really get that Seattleites are hungry for an interconnected, multimodal transportation system,” Farrell, a former director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, said. “They get how much voters in Seattle are hungry for a transportation network that gives you a lot of different ways to get around.”
Both candidates want to speed up, as much as possible, construction of light rail to Ballard and West Seattle, as part of the Sound Transit 3 package approved by voters last year. But the way they would do so is one of the few major transportation policy differences between them.
It’s not so much building light-rail lines that takes (seemingly) forever, it’s planning and designing them. Planning and design for the West Seattle line is expected to last until 2025, and for Ballard it’s expected to last through 2026. The West Seattle line is estimated to be complete in 2030 and Ballard in 2035.
Durkan and Moon promise to speed up ST3 projects by streamlining the design and permitting process. But Moon also wants the city to loan Sound Transit money (she’s not sure how much yet) to help kick-start the projects.
Durkan disagrees. “Money is not the problem; process is,” she said.
Moon notes that despite its much-publicized $54 billion cost, Sound Transit doesn’t have all that money lying around waiting to be spent.
“Part of why the Sound Transit timeline is so long is because they’re matching delivery of projects to the speed at which they raise money,” Moon said. Other cities, she said, have more aggressively sold bonds on future tax revenue, giving them a cash infusion to get things rolling.
But Sound Transit, while diplomatic, isn’t too interested in a loan from the city.
“While Sound Transit can accept funding from third parties, debt that we have to repay is still debt and would count against our agency debt limits,” Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said. “That said, Sound Transit is open to discussing other innovative ways for the city to invest local dollars to optimize and expedite the project.”
Last year, Rogoff wrote to the City Council with 27 specific changes the city could make to expedite permitting, speed construction and reduce costs. Those changes, not a loan, are how the city can accelerate the process, Rogoff said. The city has made none of the changes, Sound Transit said.
“It’s a heavy lift to talk about further acceleration,” Don Billen, Sound Transit’s lead planner, said. “It’s not going to be easy and it is going to mean doing business in a different manner.”
Despite what both candidates have said, Sound Transit says there is little hope of West Seattle opening early. If there is any chance for Ballard to open early, Sound Transit said, the city needs to work with the agency to come up with a preferred path for the rail line by early 2019.
That is easier said than done. Amazon will have thoughts on the route through South Lake Union. Property owners, environmental groups and neighborhoods will weigh in. The agency’s tentative route is an elevated line along 15th Avenue West and a drawbridge over Salmon Bay. Transit boosters want a tunnel under Salmon Bay. Sound Transit says that would cost about $600 million extra and could add as many as two years to the project.
The next mayor will have to help referee it all, and quickly.
Neither Moon nor Durkan has a preference between a bridge or a tunnel.
“There’s going to be trade-offs, so we have to look at the data,” Moon said. “Once the data’s in front of us … let’s all commit to deciding quickly.”
Durkan said coming to agreement on alignment is going to be very challenging and community engagement needed to start “almost immediately.”
“We can assume that there will be great resistance if there isn’t great input,” she said.
It’s bad now, but traffic downtown is about to get worse. Over the next several years, downtown is going to enter what the city Department of Transportation is calling the “period of maximum constraint.”
The number of congestion-causing projects coming down the pike is daunting: expanding the convention center, kicking buses out of the transit tunnel, tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct, rebuilding Alaskan Way, rebuilding Colman Dock and tearing up First Avenue to put in a new streetcar line.
Congestion pricing, or variable tolling — tolls that increase when roads are most crowded — has been both successful and popular in several European cities, and various studies have pointed to it as a possible solution to Seattle traffic.
Should Seattle explore congestion pricing?
Both candidates said yes, something neither had been willing to do just four months ago.
“Our downtown core is going to be increasingly congested in the coming years,” Durkan said. “We will need a range of innovative solutions to deal with this.”
Moon also said we should look at congestion pricing, “but make sure we can offer sufficient transit, biking and walking alternatives before we leap.”
Back in June, Durkan did not respond to repeated emailed questions about congestion pricing.
And in June, Moon said essentially the opposite of what she said recently.
“Making driving downtown more expensive just punishes working people who don’t have access to reliable, fast buses and light rail,” she said then.
Both candidates have adopted an idea first proposed by Nikkita Oliver in the primary campaign: free ORCA transit cards for Seattle kids.
Neither candidate knows what it will cost.
King County Metro collected about $7.4 million in fares from kids using youth ORCA cards last year and an additional $4.5 million from school districts paying for free or reduced youth fares. That leads to an estimate of about $12 million countywide to give free ORCA cards to kids under 18, although Metro stressed that free cards could lead to increased demand and increased costs.
Durkan says it would pay off.
“If you get young people used to transit and they use it and it works and it’s part of who they are and the culture, they continue to use it and so our reliance on single-occupancy vehicles will diminish,” Durkan said.
Said Moon: “Getting kids free access to school so they can show up to school easily is really a big part of the education challenge, and the more we can help kids get to school, the better.”