THE SOUND TRANSIT board's 12–1 vote last Thursday to sacrifice a long-planned light-rail station on First Hill has political ramifications that extend far beyond the debate over the agency's ability to serve Seattle's inner-city neighborhoods. Two members of the Sound Transit board, Dwight Pelz and Richard McIver, are running for the same seat on the Seattle City Council; McIver, the incumbent, cast the lone "no" vote on the proposal. The debate over First Hill could give new political energy to a race that has been nearly absent from the headlines since July, when Pelz jumped out of the race against Council Member Richard Conlin to run against the three-term incumbent.
McIver, who voted last week, along with six of his city-council colleagues, for a resolution imploring the Sound Transit board to keep First Hill in the Sea-Tac-to-Husky-Stadium line, called Thursday's Sound Transit vote "a terrible mistake" in an e-mail to his political supporters. But Pelz countered that his opponent was wasting time on analysis at a time when the agency ought to be making decisions. "I think we need to move forward and get moving on light rail," Pelz says. "Richard said we need to stop and study it for another year. He's out of step."
On Thursday, board members who voted to scrap the station expressed regret over their decision, noting apologetically that under newly adopted federal standards Sound Transit would not qualify for a $650 million grant it needs to build the line if the First Hill station was included. Under the new requirements, in order to get federal funding, a rail system must generate a certain number of new transit riders—people who used to drive alone, rather than, say, those who switched to rail from buses. The formula favors sprawling, suburban cities like Phoenix and Houston, where transit ridership is very low, and works against progressive West Coast cities like Seattle, where half the population already uses transit.
"It's a very regressive, reactionary, Republican way of evaluating the merits of a transit system," Pelz says. "If people were driving to work on First Hill, the federal government would be more positive about putting a station up there." But losing the federal money would force the agency to go back to voters for an additional tax—a risky prospect at a time when the city's two biggest transportation projects, the monorail and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, are in political and financial jeopardy. Pelz also points out that the First Hill station, which would have been built in unstable soils using rarely tested underground construction methods, carries considerable financial risk.
Supporters of McIver's point of view lined up to speak on behalf of the First Hill station in the agency's spacious meeting room Thursday, pointing out that without the station, light rail would bypass a community that includes thousands of elderly residents, students, and hospital and university workers—the very same people who voted overwhelmingly for light rail in the first place. "I support serving the region's most dense neighborhood with rail transit," longtime light rail supporter State Representative Ed Murray, whose district includes First Hill, told the board. "If we fail to include First Hill, we will have broken the promise we made to the very voters who made this system a reality."
"This area has a job density higher than any other area in the region except downtown Seattle," McIver said Thursday. "I don't believe we should allow the federal funding [changes] to force the wrong transit system through this region."
Several board members, including McIver, suggested an amendment that would have instructed staff to look for alternative sites on First Hill, but that proposal was shelved for at least a week after Bellevue Mayor Connie Marshall raised objections about its cost.
Both Pelz and McIver are likely to use Thursday's vote as fodder for their upcoming campaigns. Pelz will say his vote to scrap First Hill demonstrates his willingness to make tough decisions even in the face of opposition. McIver, meanwhile, will call his vote a principled stand against a board that voted to ignore the needs of Seattle's densest neighborhood (First Hill) and its most diverse (the Rainier Valley, where McIver says many First Hill workers live). Whether the vote will help McIver or Pelz depends on whether voters are in a mood to be swayed by pragmatism (Pelz) or principle (McIver).