With Bertha still stuck and another spending request still ahead, something-for-everyone Proposition 1 could be a tough sell.
If anyone wonders why Seattle’s Proposition 1 property-tax request became so enormous, at a record $279 per year for an average city home, Mayor Ed Murray doesn’t hesitate to answer.
All year long, supporters asked him to add stuff.
“We’ve heard again, and again, and again from people that we needed to do more than just paving, which is why this grew larger,” Murray said in an interview last week of his nine-year, $930 million proposal.
“The grade-separated corridors for transit, that’s not just going to make buses work better, that’s going to make the ability of cars to move better. Safety improvements, signalization, modern signal systems that will help us really manage congestion, those are some of the things. There’s building out sidewalks, building out more grade-separate bike tracks, which tend to be more popular than stripes on streets.”
Voters will ultimately judge whether the $930 million package, called Move Seattle package, with its something-for-everyone approach, reflects genuine public demand for transportation improvements, or if the mayor and Seattle City Council inhabit an echo chamber of interest groups.
Ballots go out this week, and voters must send them back postmarked by Tuesday Nov. 3.
The levy could be a tough sell. Drivers stuck in traffic are venting their frustration at wayward megaprojects as grounds to distrust the government. And while although megaprojects aren’t part of Proposition 1, the international spectacle of the long-stalled Highway 99 tunnel-boring machine Bertha is part of the backdrop for this campaign.
“SDOT (Seattle Department of Transportation) has not been producing. You’ve only got to look at the seawall and the lack of transparency on that, and also what’s going on with the streetcar, to see that,” Eugene Wasserman, spokesman for the opposition Keep Seattle Affordable campaign, told the Southwest District Council.
Proponents reply that the levy dollars and commitments are safe because the SDOT plan would deliver familiar pavement and sidewalks. Not exotic tunnels and trains.
“When you look at the kind of bread-and-butter transportation projects that are going to be built across the city, SDOT has a stellar track record of delivering on time,” said Sandeep Kaushik, consultant for the Let’s Move Seattle campaign.
The levy is snuggled between last year’s election, when city voters approved a $60 car-tab fee and 0.1 percent sales-tax boost for more buses, and a potential $15 billion Sound Transit measure next year to raise property, sales and car-tab taxes.
Under all three measures, an average Seattle household that paid $1,975 in transportation taxes and fees last year could pay $2,762 by 2017, says a study by Doug MacDonald, a former state transportation secretary, who supports Move Seattle.
Green-transportation groups flip the argument, to say Move Seattle complements past and future measures. To liberate all those extra buses from gridlock, the city needs Move Seattle’s $154 million infusion to add transit lanes and stations, they say.
A typical family would spend $12 more per month compared to the existing Bridging the Gap transportation levy, said SDOT director Scott Kubly, but gain walking, bike and transit improvements that reduce their costly dependence on driving. For the proverbial latte a week.
Proposition 1 is endorsed by the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Mariners, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways,Cascade Bicycle Club, labor unions, developers and architects.
Two good-government groups, The League of Women Voters and the Municipal League, recommend a “no” vote.
The league criticized the city’s habit of using levies to fund basic maintenance, and says Move Seattle should wait until after new council members are elected this fall by districts — where they will become more accountable to voters.
The opposition is funded mainly by Aurora Avenue property owner Faye Garneau, a longtime champion for drivers and basic street maintenance.
Supporters have raised campaign donations totaling $118,217 and opponents $56,530.
Is the project list real?
The city published kaleidoscopic maps of each City Council district, as if to leave no neighborhood’s voters unwooed by what Move Seattle could mean for them.
But the levy ordinance says that city project lists are “illustrative only and shall not be mandatory.”
“They claim they have a plan. We claim they have a tax,” said Wasserman.
The ordinance requires $207 million go toward safety, $420 million to maintenance, and $303 million toward “congestion relief,” mostly alternatives to driving. Those allotments are “sacrosanct,” said Andrew Glass Hastings, the mayor’s transportation adviser, and they would require eight council votes to be shifted to other uses.
“The commitment to complete all the projects funded by the Move Seattle levy is clear,” he said by e-mail Friday.
Some pledges seem assured based on their celebrity status, led by a Northgate Station bike-pedestrian bridge over Interstate 5.
So does a promise to improve safety in every school zone with signs, enforcement cameras, sidewalks and speed bumps. These fast and relatively cheap projects are bound to be watchdogged by parents and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.
Another good bet is the Madison Street bus-rapid transit line, some $100 million to $120 million, with design well under way. City transit planners are optimistic the federal government will provide a major share, persuaded by the corridor’s 12,000-plus daily riders.
Other projects are more speculative, a knot to be untangled later.
The tight Eastlake Avenue corridor, for instance, is supposed to get both a RapidRide-level bus route and protected bike lanes, to be somehow shared with small-business curbside parking. When questioned, city staff reply bike lanes won’t necessarily wind up on the arterial. A similar dilemma will test SDOT’s bike and bus commitments for Rainier Avenue South.
Only one project is required by name in the ordinance, $20 million in seed money for a Lander Street overpass in Sodo.
However, the Legislature added only $7 million from new gas taxes, leaving the $180 million crossing grossly underfunded, and a bigger longshot than other Move Seattle projects.
Count on street work
The most solid part of Move Seattle is the street- and bridge-maintenance plan, some $385 million.
SDOT says levy funds would allow it to repair or rebuild 76 arterial streets on its draft construction list, which chief of staff Hannah McIntosh provided The Seattle Times. The list details costs, lane miles, and traffic volumes, and whether roads need blacktop, concrete panels, or total rebuild.
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The first street on the nine-year list is Third Avenue in Belltown next year, while the biggest project is to rebuild the south two miles of 35th Avenue Southwest, in 2023.
Transit proposals are sometimes firm, and sometimes in the dream stage.
In addition to the Madison Street line, six bus corridors would become RapidRide lines, using a mix of transit lanes, bus-priority signals, roadside fare-card readers, and electronic-schedule signs. After the conversion, buses will display RapidRide red exteriors and lettered route names. Federal aid, which helped establish RapidRide, is expected to fund about half the cost.
Bold promises to build 50 miles of protected bicycle lanes and 60 miles of back-street greenways might be more nebulous, but quite a few would happen. The city also says specific locations for new sidewalks are subject to change.
Voters need only look to the ongoing, two-decade struggle to finish the Burke-Gilman Trail’s “missing link” past the Ballard industrial zone to understand plans can stall.
The levy doesn’t offer a new Magnolia Bridge, nor a First Avenue streetcar. A new Ballard Bridge would be funded later, combined with a proposed Sound Transit light-rail crossing, Murray said.
“The opponents can’t say ‘it’s too much,’ and ‘you didn’t put these things in.’ I don’t understand that argument.”
To satisfy all the demands, he said, would have doubled the levy.