Seattle may end up indulging itself in three votes on the embattled waterfront tunnel, or at least three skirmishes over whether to hold those votes. One referendum vote is coming in August (maybe), concerning the City Council's procedural punctilios; there might be another on Initiative 101 in November; and a third next year (echoing the first) on the council's "final" vote on going ahead, sometime this fall.
Is this extreme? Is this harmless? Is Seattle fiddling while its economy and its competitiveness burn? Is there any way to get the important issues (funding highway and transit improvements, job growth for non-tech sectors, re-financing the University of Washington, unfunded liabilities, the impasse over taxes) back in the foreground?
Impossible, you say? Well, consider the tales from three cities and how they are pulling together for impressive action on some big problems. In each case the resources mobilized and the broad political bases are commensurate with solving big challenges. These examples, in turn, may be harbingers of the kind of swing back toward concerted political power that could be heading for this region if the pendulum swings back sharply from the stalemated, insurgency years of Mayor Mike McGinn.
Start with Los Angeles, where the urgency of the meltdown of the California economy and its feckless politics have given marching orders on transit funding. Led by Mayor Antonio Vallaraigosa, the city leadership has put together a plan to build 30 years of transit projects in the next 10 years. It will use a new half-cent sales tax, passed in 2008, as collateral to sell long term bonds and secure a low-interest federal loan. It will then take these billions of available funds and accomplish 12 transit projects in 10 years. Construction bids are coming in 15-30 percent lower, given the current economy. And the projects are a modern mix of extending rail transit, bus rapid transit on bus-only lanes, and a way to link three downtown rail lines.
There are other advantages to this speed-up. It means more construction jobs sooner. It means a project like the Westside "subway to the sea," expected to be done in 2032, will be ready in a third that time, spurring quicker transit-oriented development. The urgency(and the need to present a common front to the feds) helped get important players, like Hollywood, on board.The federal government has agreed to accelerate environmental reviews, hoping the 30/10 plan will become a national model.
And then consider this, from Victoria Broadus, writing on the blog CityFix:
"Dedicated local leaders who are willing to put their reputation on the line by backing such public transit overhauls are always crucial players in the most promising transit improvements in cities around the world. From TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia to a new high-tech bus system from an innovative public-private partnership in Indore, India to a bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Amman, Jordan, influential local leaders with a passion for improving public transit were critical to the success of new systems.
"One main hindrance to political support for transit is the time it takes for projects to be completed and gain public acceptance; traditional transit systems take so long to complete that many politicians don’t see any point in backing them. But busway improvements like New York’s Select Bus Service, BRT systems around the world, and now LA’s innovative 30/10 plan have provided leaders with models of sustainable transport that can be quickly implemented, allowing them to reap political returns from the projects they support."
That last sentence is a key argument for speed, as opposed to endless process, Seattle-style. Politicians like to vote for things that might happen while they are still in office.
Next city in our survey: Cincinnati. Leaders in this city and two neighboring cities in Kentucky are working together on a comprehensive approach, "cradle to career," on education. What began as scattershot approaches turned into a highly coordinated approach to the full education continuum. All the parties and funders agree on common goals, shared ways to measure success, regular high-level communication among the entities, and a "backbone" organization that manages the partnership, called Strive Together.
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