On his campaign website, musician and city council candidate John Roderick says, "I believe in trains, in subways, in trolleys, in buses, ride-share, bike-share, trams, water-taxis, gondolas and zip-lines."
Yesterday Roderick, who's running for citywide council position 8, and another candidate, Alon Bassok, who's running for citywide position 9, announced a joint pitch for a "neighborhood municipal rail system." The plan proposes 100 miles of rail over the next 10 years, funded by property taxes of about $200 a year for the average Seattle homeowner.
"Regional transit plans solve regional problems," Roderick tells The Stranger. "Or attempt to solve regional problems. We have problems within Seattle that those regional transit plans don’t try to address, which is that I can’t get from Ballard to U-District or Ballard to Capitol Hill conveniently and efficiently. That is choking the city and making access very difficult. Even before tens of thousands of new people moved into the city, we already had a problem moving around city."
With that "regional transit plans" line, Roderick is referring to the clusterfuck that is trying to get Olympia to give the Puget Sound region taxing authority so that Sound Transit can go to voters with a plan for the next round of light rail expansion. Roderick supports that plan, but thinks it focuses on regional connectivity in a way that doesn't actually make it any easier to get around Seattle, thereby keeping people in their cars and making traffic worse.
Roderick is gaining traction in his race against incumbent council president Tim Burgess, raising more than Burgess last month and picking up endorsements from district Democratic groups and the Sierra Club. Bassok, an urban planner who does research at the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington and is also pitching the plan, is running for the other citywide seat against civil rights attorney and former legal counsel to the mayor Lorena González and neighborhood activist Bill Bradburd. Bassok has raised about $15,000 to González's $80,000 and Bradburd's $50,000.
But how realistic is a pitch like this?
"Going it alone on light rail is not something I support and I doubt the council would support that," Burgess says. Since Sound Transit has already begun planning for light rail between Ballard and downtown and West Seattle and downtown, Burgess believes Sound Transit's light rail plans are indeed serving the city's needs, especially combined with new streetcars and last year's voter-approved Metro funding measure.
"It's not like we're sitting around doing nothing," he says.
Burgess doesn't buy the numbers thrown around by Bassok and Roderick, either.
"The idea that we could build 100 miles for $1 billion is just way, way wrong," he says. "Light rail is expensive. The current link from downtown to the airport is 14 or 15 miles in length and cost over $2 billion, so I don’t know how we could do 100 miles for $1 billion.”
(To be exact, a Sound Transit spokesperson says the light rail from downtown to the airport is 15.6 miles long and cost $2.7 billion.)
Burgess’s campaign consultant Christian Sinderman (who also helped get Mayor Ed Murray elected) said the idea is reminiscent of failed efforts by former mayor Mike McGinn to get the city to fund rail.
The plan, Sinderman says, “shows a willful ignorance and naiveté about the progress we’re making.”
(McGinn, who has endorsed Roderick, says the whole argument about “going it alone” is long-over now that the city is buying bus service and has committed in its longterm planning to find funding for streetcar expansion. “It’s just a false dichotomy of either Sound Transit or the city [funding rail],” he says. “We’re in the transit game already. The question is are we going to get serious about funding transit or rely on Sound Transit alone?”)
Bradburd, who’s running for the same seat as Bassok, also believes their proposal would “run into the billions,” he says in a text message.
“I think we could be far more effective with electric trolley buses,” Bradburd says. “That’s something we can do now at [a] far lower cost… We need better transit now not years out.”
With Sound Transit, the housing levy, and the mayor's $930 million transportation levy all set to come before voters over the next few years, will Seattleites be willing to fund another measure like the one Roderick and Bassok are pitching? Or are we, as Knute Berger has written in Seattle Magazine, approaching levy fatigue?
Tenants advocate Jon Grant, the other main Burgess challenger, worries we're approaching that fatigue point, even though he's supportive of city-funded rail.
“They got the concept right,” Grant says of Roderick and Bassok, “but did they think of the politics of it right?”
Grant is instead advocating for a local capital gains tax—even if it lands the city in court because some say it's not within the city's authority to do—and an employee head tax to pay for either transit or the other things funded by levies, like affordable housing.
Roderick believes voters would see value in his proposal. "I understand that there’s a lot of fatigue from taxpayers," he says, "but there's also a lot of need, and in a liberal progressive city that requires everybody chip in."
Some specifics of the pair's pitch—the details of the bond or levy they would put before voters, the routes the trains would take—aren't yet fleshed out, and Roderick acknowledges that "there have been proposals like this over last 40, 50 years."
"There’s a lot of hidden conservatism in people here and largely a feeling that maybe if we just ignore the problem it will solve itself," he says. "There’s no other explanation for how we’ve gotten into a situation that is so intolerable... The city is gridlocked to a halt and everyone is feeling that profoundly, that the lack of mobility is impacting the way the city functions… I think there’s no more pretending the solution is inaction."
And Bassok, for his part, says that comparing their proposal to the $2 billion, 14-or-so-mile light rail route to the airport isn’t fair since the infrastructure around their proposed rail system wouldn’t look the same as the light rail Sound Transit has already built.
“[Sound Transit’s] light rail is an unfair comparison,” Bassok says. “It’s a totally different creature.”
Specifically, Bassok says their plan would using existing streets, laying tracks and converting lanes to dedicated train use. It wouldn’t go underground and it wouldn’t be accompanied by large stations. Instead, its stops would look more like a streetcar or Metro’s RapidRide.
“You just get off the sidewalk and walk into train—nothing more than what we have here on bus lines,” he says. “We don’t have to go off the deep end. We can just build rail the way so many other people have.”