Congratulations, West Seattle! You should be proud! It's a brand-new day, thanks to the passage of Seattle City Council districting Amendment 19, and that means neighborhood-friendly projects proposed by members eager to win a district vote—or at least, that's how some folks in North Seattle seem to be viewing a budgetary move by Council Member Tom Rasmussen.
Here's the issue: One piece of the mayor's budget allocates a half-million dollars to plan pedestrian improvements near the future Northgate light-rail station, and $2.5 million for sidewalk development. But council transportation committee chair Rasmussen has put forth a plan to take that $500,000, plus $1.1 million of the sidewalk money, and spend it all on a completely different project—in West Seattle, the district where he lives (and a district in which he's the only incumbent council member). Now, for the first district-based elections in 2015, Rasmussen could prove that he brings home the bacon.
So why are North Seattleites—and pedestrian and transit activists—so pissed? Because that $500,000 is to help them plan an enormous project for their neighborhood: a pedestrian bridge crossing I-5 that would connect the future Northgate light-rail station with North Seattle Community College. "It's all about access," says Renee Staton, a Pinehurst neighborhood resident who's been fighting for that bridge for a long time.
See, because the Northgate transit center is jammed up next to the freeway, "it's really difficult for people west of I-5 to get to the center," she explains—especially on foot. If they don't build a bridge, you'd have to cross under the freeway on a piece of Northgate Way that is a total mess for pedestrians. As Staton puts it, "It's weirdly configured, it's highly congested, and there are a lot of accidents." The pedestrian bridge, on the other hand, will easily connect a college, a community clinic, and nearby low-income housing with the shiny new light-rail station. Her neighborhood fought hard to get the bridge instead of a hulking parking garage that would encourage more driving, and they won. Yay!
But while council staffers acknowledge in documents that the planning this $500,000 pays for "is work that will have to be done," they add that "it need not be done in 2014," making way for Rasmussen to siphon funding to the West Seattle project, a host of improvements to Fauntleroy Way SW.
That claim that the money isn't urgent does not sit well with the other players involved.
The bridge requires a complex web of funding, including money from Sound Transit—which will disappear if the city can't put together a funding package by mid-2015—and, hopefully, from the state. And this budget switcheroo "could jeopardize the $3 million for the bridge which Jessyn [Farrell, D-46] and I have worked to add to the proposed state transportation package," wrote 46th District representative Gerry Pollet in a post today on the Seattle District 5 Facebook group.
"I don't want to read into this that it's about neighborhood district politics," says Staton. "But right now, we have no council members who live in District 5"—that's the North Seattle district where Staton lives, and the district this bridge would serve. "And it's so hard to draw attention to our projects." The I-5 bridge, she continues, has broad support from the surrounding community and a coalition of pedestrian, bike, and transit organizations. And because it requires coordinated funding and construction on the light rail station is already under way, it has "very specific timelines." So, she asks, "Why do we want to risk jeopardizing this project for another project that doesn't have any timelines at all? Why would you jeopardize such a large project that benefits so many people?"
Rasmussen doesn't see it that way. "It's not one or the other," he says. "I strongly support both of those [projects]. Both are important bicycle and pedestrian projects in rapidly growing residential neighborhoods." As far as he's concerned, he's simply "trying to schedule it so we can do both." He says it's his understanding that the project can stay on track if council just budgets that $500,000 next year, and he says he's reached out to Pollet to assure him that he's supportive of the Northgate bridge.
He seems amused by the fact that "barely more than a week after the election, people are already looking at the city by districts." In this new system, he muses, "there will always be that concern, that maybe this is just district politics... I think that people are already viewing council members from that lens." But while he won't say whether he's gunning for the West Seattle district seat in two years, he'd like to point out that, for now, "I still represent North Seattle as much as West Seattle."
It's certainly council's prerogative to shift money around as they see fit (hit it, Bobby!), and further, sources at city hall agree that Rasmussen has been backing the Fauntleroy Way work long before Amendment 19 showed up. It seems likely he would've pushed this forward regardless. But given that it's noticeably further down the city's priority list for large capital projects than the Northgate bridge—in part because the bridge can and must leverage outside funding—this serves as a kind of example of what fights over neighborhood pork projects are going to look like in the future. Except, after 2015, these North Seattleites will have their very own council member, too.