Seattle transportation levy looks like a nail-biter

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After months of confidence that voters would approve the $930 million Move Seattle levy, proponents are acknowledging that it will be a very close vote next week. The tide apparently turned quickly: A week after distributing overwhelmingly positive polling for the transportation package, campaign manager Sandeep Kaushik is now calling those numbers “useless.”

Move Seattle covers a broad range of issues, including patches to the Ballard Bridge, massive repaving, and wide-ranging efforts to ensure that freight movers, car commuters, transit riders, bicyclists and pedestrians all have better travel conditions.

Data collected in early September by EMC Research, and released last week, showed levy supporters leading by nearly 20 percentage points, even when voters were provided with negative messaging. The numbers, Kaushik wrote in a statement, contradicted the “chatter, based on speculation and anecdote, in the local media recently about ‘levy fatigue’ and supposedly widespread public opposition to the Let's Move Seattle Proposition 1 transportation levy.”

Kaushik himself pointed out that support for levies often declines as Election Day approaches. But he could not have predicted the influence of Faye Garneau, the one-woman political machine who has dumped over $300,000 into the campaign to defeat the levy in the last two weeks.

Kaushik says that his firm has conducted more polling since early September, but does not plan to release it to the public. “We typically don’t release polling,” he says. He released the September data, he says, because “I was irritated by all of this groundless speculation and stringing together of anecdotes.”

Kaushik says it would be incorrect to assume that his group is not releasing its most recent data because it is negative, but he has nonetheless backed off the September numbers. Garneau’s money, he says, rendered the data “instantly useless.” That amount of money, he says, is enough to sway public opinion.

The power of Garneau’s funding has become immediately obvious. The opposition campaign recently bought advertising space on the Stranger’s website and during Sunday’s Seahawks game against the Dallas Cowboys.

Meanwhile, proponents of the levy are making Garneau a target. Groups including OneAmerica and Transportation Choices Coalition have sent out mailers to “call out wealthy anti-tax, anti-transit zealot Faye Garneau for almost single-handedly trying to kill the Let’s Move Seattle transportation levy."

The Seattle Times published a story Friday with new data, provided by Kaushik, attempting to illustrate the effectiveness of the previous transportation levy, Bridging the Gap. The paper had previously called Bridging the Gap "only a partial success."

If the levy fails, says Councilmember Mike O’Brien, “it would be nothing short of devastating.” Any flexible pot of money would be at risk. Maintenance of roads and bike lanes would likely not happen. And the city would go back to the drawing board on its capital projects.

Councilmember Nick Licata echoes O’Brien. “We’re going to be in a pile full of hurt" if the levy fails, he says. "We are very dependent on this passing to meet a number of our minimum transportation needs.”

Licata says the City might put in $1 million to hold a special election to pass a smaller transportation package in early to mid-2016. If not, voters would almost definitely see a revised tax levy on next November's ballot.

Mayor Ed Murray has a number of other levies he’d like to run, in addition to transportation. The core of his Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda is built around a 2016 housing levy, and his office appears to be seriously considering a more-than-$100 million public safety levy for 2016 as well. Licata says if transportation fails, the mayor will have to reduce the size of the housing levy and take the public safety levy off the table for next year, which would mean further delay for the Seattle Police Department’s much needed new North Precinct station.

Licata attempted this summer to reduce the scale of the Move Seattle levy to $600 million to improve its chances of passing. “I always felt like there was weak support,” he says. Garneau’s money, he adds, could be “enough to sway three or four percent.”

If Garneau is telling the truth and the opposition will run ads through the whole Seahawks game, Mayor Murray better cross his fingers that it's a blowout by the half.

Join Crosscut at Civic Cocktail on Nov. 4 for a post-election wrap-up with political consultants Chris Sinderman and John Wyble, and former Seattle mayor Charley Royer. Then, Sen. Pramila Jayapal will discuss race, rent control and more.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.