- Council Member Tom Rasmussen has a mixed record as chair of the transportation committee.
That’s just one of the words I heard today while asking around about Council Member Tom Rasmussen’s decision not to seek re-election.
It came from Roger Valdez, the director of Smart Growth Seattle, who in recent years has lobbied the council in favor of micro-housing.
“He is the worst council member there is,” Valdez says. “He is willfully defiant against rationality and logic when it comes to virtually everything. He is bad on development, bad on parking, bad on transportation. I am overjoyed that he will be departing.”
Rasmussen has a peculiar reputation. He’s always sort of acted like he only represented West Seattle—remember when he tried to snag some money away from pedestrian projects in North Seattle for a project on Fauntleroy Way SW?—which made him well-suited for the new district model, sources at City Hall tell me. But he’s been known to introduce last-minute amendments to bills that can significantly change them, and despite being in his sixth year as chair of the council’s transportation committee, some people say he hasn’t actually done that much good work on transportation.
“As chair of the transportation committee, he hasn’t done anything remotely interesting,” says local transit advocate Ben Schiendelman. “Almost all the interesting positive action on transportation has not come from the person who’s supposed to be doing it.”
Rasmussen and other council members supported the car-only underground tunnel project downtown (a point I moronically forgot to mention in my earlier post; 500 lashes, please).
Around the start of that project, Rasmussen also voted against an effort to lock away $290 million in state money to cover the cost of tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct and rebuilding the Alaskan Way surface street. That plan, pushed by Council Member Nick Licata, was meant to ensure the state didn’t spend the money it had budgeted for the viaduct on overruns in the cost of the tunnel itself instead.
“He knew all the risks and all the ways [the tunnel] could go wrong for Seattle, and he didn’t do much,” says Cary Moon, founder of the People's Waterfront Coalition.
The tunnel was one of the central issues in a very unfriendly relationship between anti-tunnel former Mayor Mike McGinn and council members, including Rasmussen.
“I don’t think he is representing the city very well because of his obsessive obsession with this project," Rasmussen said about McGinn in 2010. "This is going to have a ripple effect in terms of the city’s ability to get things done in Olympia. He is unable to recognize that.” (Rasmussen made this statement after he didn’t participate in a public forum on the project because he’d only read one page of a supplemental environmental impact statement that outlined the project’s risks.)
That year, Rasmussen also spearheaded legislation to block McGinn from funding his Transit Master Plan, which would have studied, among other things, light rail service to West Seattle and Ballard. Then, he pushed back against a study of a streetcar in Eastlake because he didn’t think it was an urgent need.
In 2013, he (and lefty favorite Nick Licata, who’s also retiring from the council) helped block a study about how to get light rail across the ship canal toward Fremont. For transit advocates, the study was important in order to help inform what should be included in two upcoming transportation ballot measures: Bridging the Gap and Sound Transit 3.
So, does that mean Rasmussen just hates transit?
“He’s very much a bus guy,” says Rob Johnson, the executive director of Transportation Choices who himself is running for city council this year. (Indeed, Rasmussen campaigned for the transit funding measure Proposition 1 in November.) Johnson compares Rasmussen to Licata, saying both have been skeptical of street cars and light rail. “I wouldn’t call them opponents of those but it has translated into both of them being stronger bus advocates.”
On bikes, Rasmussen’s record is mixed. The Stranger has written before about the need to fund the city’s Bicycle Master Plan (the city’s prioritized wish list of bike projects that’s estimated to cost about $20 million a year over 20 years) and the council’s unwillingness to commit actual cash.
“If he hadn’t been so focused on preventing McGinn from getting political wins, a lot of the bike infrastructure we’re seeing happen now probably would have happened four or five years ago,” Schiendelman says, adding that improvements sooner could have saved the life of Sher Kung, a cyclist killed on Second Avenue in August just before improvements were made to the street where she died.
But Tom Fucoloro, who runs Seattle Bike Blog, and Elizabeth Kiker, executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, are more generous. They both praised Rasmussen's attention to getting the bike plan passed and say his final year on the council will be the time his legacy on the issue is fully formed. If he can find a way to fund the bike plan—perhaps through the Bridging the Gap levy, which he says he’ll focus on this year—“that would be really enormous,” Kiker says.
“I think he does really care about biking issues,” Fucoloro says. “He funds a lot of planning and wants to hold a lot of meetings, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily proving to be a bad strategy now. Suddenly, a lot of [bike improvements] are happening pretty quickly and a lot of that is because Tom has been working behind the scenes.”