Look, Mayor Mike McGinn is right in principle: Seattle should approve and fund a street rail network that gets lane priority, much like light rail in South Seattle, that swiftly moves riders from neighborhood to neighborhood. Waiting for regional partners to work with us doesn't make a ton of sense, considering that means hitting roadblocks with anti-transit suburban nutters.
So he's correct—rail is the right idea.
But McGinn was quixotic, at best, in arguing this month that we should commandeer a car tab proposal meant to fund transportation improvements. McGinn pushed the Seattle City Council to "be bold" and approve a never-ending $80 car tab fee that would serve as the prime mechanism for funding a rail network.
The council refused. Concerned that voters would reject such a high fee—particularly one that would last forever—it approved a $60 fee on August 16 that will run for 10 years. It will direct approximately $20.4 million a year as follows: 49 percent to transit, 29 percent to road repair, and 22 percent to bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
That 10-year cap is a particular dispute with McGinn, who says an eternal car tab fee is necessary to finance construction bonds that pay for streetcars (which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build). Politically, losing this fight represents a defeat for the mayor, who campaigned in 2009 on the promise to put light rail on the ballot within two years of election.
But while rail is great, McGinn's plan was premature. The Seattle Transit Master Plan developed under McGinn identified three potential corridors for rapid streetcar service. One problem: That plan isn't done yet and won't even be presented to the council until next month. Granted, the council delayed the development of that plan for six months. But even if it hadn't, a streetcar would still be a nascent idea, lacking federal funding, environmental review, or even a specific alignment.
"It's writing a check for a project that has no design, no plans, no route," says Council Member Tom Rasmussen. "I think voters would catch on really fast: Wait, what are we paying for?" The measure they are sending to the ballot, Rasmussen believes, has a much better shot with voters.
Which isn't to say McGinn should abandon his quest for rail. A poll conducted by EMC research in July found that by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin, voters preferred "expanding the transit options" over "basic maintenance and repair of our transportation infrastructure." In other words, voters want to build a transit network. But to sell that to voters, McGinn needs to lay the tracks, as it were. He needs a solid rail plan, state or federal financing, and a complete funding package that can go to voters.