Light rail and streetcars could double up on voters next year

An effort has been launched to get a Ballard-University District light-rail line on the ballot. And won't Mayor McGinn be back with something to keep his vision for streetcars moving forward?

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Link Light Rail in the downtown tunnel

An effort has been launched to get a Ballard-University District light-rail line on the ballot. And won't Mayor McGinn be back with something to keep his vision for streetcars moving forward?

Wonderful Thanksgiving news for Seattle taxpayers: Less than a month after voters soundly rejected a $60-per-vehicle tab fee to pay in large part to plan a new streetcar system, Sound Transit business analyst Keith Kyle has announced that he is organizing an effort to put a Ballard-University District light rail line on our 2012 ballot. Stations in West Ballard, Central Ballard, Fremont, and Wallingford would connect to a Brooklyn station in the University District.

Kyle says he is undertaking the effort, which has a Facebook page, independently and that his Sound Transit employment is only a coincidence. Well.

The timing of the effort is apparent. A ballot measure, Sound Transit 2, establishing a three-county light rail system was approved narrowly in 2008, after being defeated two years earlier, as it drew support from a number of youthful, first-time Obama voters. The 2008 measure constituted the largest local-level tax increase in the history of the United States.

A judgment clearly has been made that the so-called Ballard Spur, intended to be an underground line, would have a better chance of passage in a national-election year, when many casually involved voters go to the polls, than in an off-year.

There is another timing consideration, of course. Mayor Mike McGinn has strongly endorsed light-rail expansion in Seattle and will still be in office next year to support the measure, while, barring a political miracle, he shortly thereafter will be gone. Light rail, tied to a new Seattle streetcar system, has been a central component of McGinn's agenda.

As many readers know, I regard the Sound Transit regional light rail system as the hugest ripoff of public funds I have encountered in some 50 years in the public sector. The campaign for its establishment stressed its reduction of traffic congestion when, in fact, there are no data indicating anything but a net increase in such congestion after the system's prospective completion. Congestion could, however, be immediately reduced through an increase in ordinary bus service — or, later, through a bus rapid transit system.

Light rail involves huge capital and operating costs and many years of construction and will carry passengers between only a few fixed-point stations. Bus or bus rapid-transit will take more passengers to more destinations for far less money, without the lengthy construction period.

In Seattle, however, such cost-benefit tradeoffs have seldom been a major factor in the making of decisions. There is no way, for instance, that new Seattle streetcar lines can be defended on a cost-benefit basis. But, if you are a faith-based transportation visionary, as Mayor McGinn, such factors need not enter into discussion. There are no city transportation funds currently available to proceed with either new streetcar or light rail lines. In fact, there are no funds available to make necessary repairs on unsafe and outdated existing transportation infrastructure or to maintain current levels of simple bus service.

The answer: new ballot measures to pay for rail. If voters thought it cool in 2008, the thinking goes, they might vote accordingly in 2012. After all, it's only taxpayer money. What could be less important if you are a think-outside-the-box guy like McGinn or, better yet, a contractor, sub-contractor, law firm, p.r. firm, union, financial firm, consultant, or Sound Transit bureaucrat deriving income from light rail or streetcars? A companion ballot measure no doubt will be formulated soon by McGinn to keep his streetcar dream on track.

Here they come again.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of