The Mayor Games: Big transportation needs, little money

The city has a backlog of needs and a growing employment base. But moving forward has to be mixed with catching up.
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Patching on a Seattle street.

The city has a backlog of needs and a growing employment base. But moving forward has to be mixed with catching up.

In the next four years, Seattle's mayor will face transportation questions that could provide full-time work by themselves. If Seattle put out a help-wanted sign for its new mayor, it might read something like this:

Dynamic leader sought. Must have herculean attention span, ability to squeeze water from stones and money from legislators, and a knack for managing humongous projects prone to running over budget. Responsibilities include plugging gaping holes in bus service left by state funding cuts, develop plans for transportation improvements and win voter approval for new or renewed taxes for transportation. Ability to answer to pitchfork-waving mobs also a plus.

At least the candidates would know what they're getting into.

City Council President Sally Clark put it one way: by the time the next admininistration is sworn in, Clark said, "Seattle will be a glorious mess."

"You will have the major work on replacing the seawall happening," said Clark. "You will have the tunnel boring machine moving underneath the town. And at the same time, we need to keep building sidewalks in Lake City, in South Park, in Rainier Beach."

Clark's remarks echoed sentiments expressed by a range of transportation and business advocates in the city, all of whom pointed to transportation as a significant challenge facing whoever ends up in the mayor's seat for the next four years after the November election. With a backlog of regular road maintenance work that is years long and still growing, many see a risk that improvement projects will be sidelined, potentially stunting the growth of the city.

The maintenance backlog — a stunning $1.8 billion — has increasingly become a daily issue for bus riders and bicyclists as well as car and truck drivers. The deteriorating city streets spare no one from jarring bumps, no matter the mode of transportation, no matter the level of caution by the driver or cyclist.

Critically, with reserves worn down by years of temporary fixes, few stopgap measures are left. The next mayor's action on transportation, or lack thereof, looks set to shape the city long after their term ends.

"The next years are going to be really big for Seattle transportation," said Rob Johnson, director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, a Seattle group that lobbies for transit and environment-friendly transportation issues in the city.

Among the biggest issues will be filling the $75 million budget gap announced by King County Metro at the beginning of the month. The cut would lead to a 17 percent reduction in service by 2015 if not addressed. The forecast cuts come as the result of the near-simultaneous expiration of a 2011 county car-tab fee and a 2010 funding package from the state to increase bus service, alongside a decline in the sales tax revenue that has historically funded Metro.

The practical effects of the cut, if it came to pass, would be "huge," Johnson said.

Jon Scholes, of the Downtown Seattle Association, an organization of businesses in the city's core with members ranging from international construction giant Skanska to the Alexis Hotel and the Seattle Times, agreed.

"We really consider increasing and preserving transit service to be an economic competitiveness issue," Scholes said. "We can't grow jobs if we're not going to encourage more people to take the bus."

The prospect of the cuts looms in the face of a decade of growth in mass transit ridership, spurred in part by programs designed with the exact effect in mind. One was the 2006 State Commute Trip Reduction Program, which required businesses with more than 100 employees to help workers use mass transit. Another was bus service added in 2010 from West Seattle, Ballard, SoDo, Georgetown and Magnolia to downtown, to make up for reduced car capacity on the Alaskan Way viaduct.

Filling the budget gap for Metro — a county agency — isn't technically the mayor's responsibility. But, Scholes said, the cuts being proposed would effectively pull the rug out from under thousands of workers who have built their commutes around the service.

That puts the challenge squarely in the mayor's lap, Scholes said. Noting that current mayor Mike McGinn and county executive Dow Constantine have already been involved in lobbying Olympia for more money, Scholes and Johnson agreed that continuing the effort on behalf of funding sources for transit — and working to hold the lobbying coaltion together — will be part of the challenge for the next mayor.

The megaprojects themselves also present complications, said Johnson, who also sits on a committee charged with finding a way to get $200 million-worth of tolls out of the users of the tunnel. The problem, Johnson said, is that models supplied by the state's Department of Transportation predict that raising the tolls to the levels required to make that much money would divert many drivers onto surface streets — making congestion worse, and requiring the city divert its own money to fund improvements to surface streets.

For now, Johnson said, it's a hypothetical issue, but with the tunnel scheduled to open in 2015, for the next mayor — or a re-elected McGinn — it won't be.

A question of funding

Beyond immediate questions like how to keep a given service going, or how to plug a certain hole in the budget, Scholes said, the bigger challenge is to look for a way to stabilize a model that has so far responded to growth with temporary funding — and created cyclical crises each time one has expired.

When it comes to alternative transportation, "Seattle voters are willing to pay for it," said Craig Benjamin, policy and government affairs manager for the Cascade Bicycle Club of Seattle. "The major problem is, we have very few options for how we can raise revenue for transportation in Seattle."

Combine a difficulty raising funds with mega-projects where the cost of even a minor mistake can surpass the budget for something like bicycle improvements, Benjamin said, and the result is some things — like the city's $1.8 billion backlog of routine maintenance work — never get done.

Still, some are optimistic. Despite the work ahead, City Councilmember Mike O'Brien said he sees an opportunity for Seattle to transform its transportation into something on par with a world-class city. For whoever comes next, O'Brien said, that will mean going out on a limb — a challenge in its own right.

"A succesful mayor is going to be one who can sell the public on a  vision of what we can achieve," O'Brien said. Part of it is also going to mean asking for money for the list of things that need to get done, and having the guts, O'Brien said, to tell voters, "it's going to be a big list, folks.'"


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About the Authors & Contributors

Tom James

Tom James

Tom James is a feature writer and photographer from Kingston, Washington, who has reported from Seattle, Olympia, Guatemala, Jordan, and the Olympic Peninsula on topics ranging from drug use in the Navy to the silent epidemic of PTSD among refugees and what happens when fathers are deported. You can find his contact information at