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Mayor Murray throws down the regionalist transit gauntlet

Ed Murray fast-tracked a progressive agenda. Credit: Credit: Allyce Andrew

Mayor Ed Murray is pushing back on a plan to raise property taxes in Seattle to help fund Metro service. The idea popped up after the failure of Prop. 1, which sought to prop up our transit system with taxes and fees that proved unpopular. As a result of that loss major service cuts are in the offing.

Seattleites need no convincing that transit is important; they voted for Prop. 1 by a large margin. But the naysaying suburbs, exurbs and tax-skeptical and non-transit-dependent precincts in the city carried the day. Mayor Murray, who was nervous on election night, is now worried that if Seattle goes ahead with its own initiative to pay for the transit it wants it will lead to a Balkanizing of Metro.

This is a key test that Murray is setting up for himself. That is, the mayor wants to do something that will be popular in Seattle — transit funding — but he wants to do it his way. The new proposed ballot measure has the support of many transit advocates, including former mayor Mike McGinn, and I suspect it would have a good chance of passing. But Murray wants to raise the political stakes by solving the Metro funding issues on a regional basis. His plan will be released shortly. In the short term, it might be another stop-gap measure, but Murry is also making an argument for an alternative to Seattle go-it-alone-ism.

During the mayoral campaign last summer, the candidates trooped out to Microsoft for a lunchtime debate in front of employees. One of the issues raised was regional leadership, an area where Seattle has been seen as lagging. Candidate Peter Steinbrueck said “Seattle needs to get out of its bubble,” Mike McGinn touted his leadership on coal train opposition and Murray pointed to his ability to bring people together in Olympia on transportation. All seemed to acknowledge that Seattle had a responsibility to the region, leadership-wise.

Seattle is the 900-pound regional gorilla, but we act like Bobo, the Woodland Park Zoo's late, lovable ape who never matured and couldn't be relied on as a partner. Greg Nickels once joked about Seattle seceding from the state or region, McGinn was seen as a particularly polarizing Seattle-centric figure by our regional neighbors and Olympia. Seattle has been rapped for being too bike-centric and Eastside politicians have noted that the 520 bridge replacement project only ran into roadblocks when it arrived in Montlake. Seattle is the one that demanded a risky tunnel and has refused to pay for any overruns, regardless of what the legislature has passed into law. Our push for density indicates we want all the goodies for ourselves, or that we want to turn everywhere else into an extension of Seattle. No wonder some politicians enjoy seeing us flail and fail.

Murray fits the mold of a classic Seattle idealist who wants the city to show the nation that progressive politics can work. He's grabbed the lead on the $15-per-hour minimum wage, staked his mayoralty on finding a progressive new police chief to reform the department, now he's seizing the regional transportation crisis. Murray's an idealist, but also an incrementalist. His bold policy steps are all informed by his experience with the long game for gay marriage — push for radical change, one step at a time. The heavily-consultative process on the chief search and the phase-in of the minimum wage proposal all reflect this.

The transit crisis will be a test of his leadership. Part of the problem lies in Olympia, where movement on a state transportation package is as stuck as Bertha. And Bertha’s problems, among others, are making voters a bit more cynical about big transportation packages in general. But the funding of transportation and transit has hugely to do with how the state funds it and it allocates those funds. Municipalities have limitations. It is also a regional issue — roads, routes, rails and trails don’t start and stop the city limits. The county’s Metro and the multi-county Sound Transit operate regionally, and everything is, or ought to be, connected. This is one area where drawing a moat around Seattle won’t work.

As Benjamin Anderstone showed in his fascinating analysis of the Prop. 1 defeat, the trick for Murray is to convince constituencies outside Seattle proper to support Metro service and take a larger view beyond the cost of their car tabs. They have done it before, supporting light rail even in areas that will never directly benefit from a station. People can get the big picture if the big picture makes sense to them. And that is part of the task Murray has taken on: if you don't want Balkanization, you have to make the case for why helping each other makes sense. You have to paint the big picture and sell it. You have to bring everyone along, even those who will always be driving on I-405.

Many in the region have tuned-out Seattle. We're the selfie city, often preening in our exceptionalism. We've got the answers. We're the righteous ones. We're the ones with the most clout. Murray's hardest case in proving Seattle progressive functionality isn't to the rest of the country. He has to convince our closest neighbors and competitors that his way of doing transportation makes the most sense, and will be successful and sustainable.

Murray was able to make deals in the legislature, some good, some not so good. That deal-making ability will be put to the test. Can he prove that a Seattle mayor has the credibility to advance the region? Can he suggest ways of spreading or reallocating assets to benefit communities outside the city limits? Can a Seattle mayor beholden to ultra-liberal constituencies be persuasive enough in red and purple precincts to turn the tide on transit? Can he be influential in getting a Democrat-controlled state senate that he can deal with better than he could with the previous Majority Coalition run by renegade Rodney Tom and the Republicans?

There are many moving parts. Murray seems unafraid of them. He's embraced a test of regional leadership, and we'll all be watching to see if the mayor of Seattle can be effective as the mayor of Pugetopolis as well.

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