When Mayor Mike McGinn unveils his 2013–2014 budget to the Seattle City Council on September 24, his proposal will do more than balance a $20 million deficit—it'll include an ambitious $6 million pledge to study high-capacity transit.
If the council approves that plan, McGinn says the city could complete four new lines—likely streetcars—connecting downtown to Ballard, Queen Anne, and the University District within five years, as well as a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system servicing Madison Park.
"This is exactly the way I think we should proceed," says Tom Rasmussen, chair of the council's Transportation Committee, who's been critical of McGinn's attempts to study and fund new rail systems in the past. (Rasmussen praises this latest plan as "thoughtful" and "collaborative," instead of the mayor's previous "arbitrary" proposals.) Rasmussen says full council support for the mayor's proposal is all but guaranteed.
Specifically, McGinn's budget proposal includes:
• $2 million to fund a corridor analysis of a downtown to University District line (perhaps along Eastlake)
• $1 million for corridor analysis of a Madison Street BRT line
• $500,000 to study a north/south crossing of the ship canal for pedestrians, bikes, and transit
• $2.5 million to fund the next phase of the development process—the design work—for whichever line is ready first.
In hindsight, pledging to study transit lines may seem like a modest proposal from a man who campaigned in 2009 with a promise to put a Ballard to West Seattle light rail measure on the ballot within two years of being elected (and didn't succeed). "My last attempt was not a winning strategy," admits McGinn, referring to a failed 2011 ballot measure that would have used car-tab fees to fund transportation projects. "There's no mayor's school, and I didn't expect the headwinds I would face."
This time around, McGinn and the council are working together after agreeing to a Transit Master Plan. In that plan last year, the Seattle Department of Transportation pinpointed the top corridors ripe for high-capacity transit development. The city and Sound Transit have also begun studying a so-called downtown connector that would unite the First Hill streetcar and the South Lake Union streetcar.
Preliminary studies of the Ballard to downtown line show that it should accommodate 26,000 people using the line each day. As McGinn points out, "Street rail is the only mode that could move that many people through the city each day—as much as Link light rail is moving through Rainier Valley."
And after getting the council's preliminary nod last week to build a Sonics arena, this rail plan could prove to be a significant step in his transformation from a mayor of aspiration to a mayor who finally gets things done.