Mayor Durkan
Mayor Durkan NATE GOWDY

If you care about the future of the planet, odds are you paid attention to what took place in San Francisco last week at the Global Climate Action Summit, where California Governor Jerry Brown issued an APB to everyone not named Donald Trump and not working for the U.S. federal government to talk green in the city by the bay.

Plenty of Washington bigwigs heeded Jerry’s call. The Stranger spotted Governor Inslee making the rounds as chairperson of various blue-state climate Rebel Alliances fighting the big red Death Star—a perfect metaphor for a climate-fucked world, no? Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien got written up in the New York Times for trying out electric bike-share for the first time. (Really, Mike? You’ve never been on an electric-assist LimeBike? I bet you can see one out your office window right now.) Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced that the company will let 10,000 green storefronts bloom—but not fix the glaring problem that their coffee still sucks. State Senator (and apparently bad-ass surfer) Kevin Ranker told us about his plan to halt any possible offshore drilling in our waters.

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And when PR people found out I live in Washington—cuz even climate change advocacy has PR people—they got all hot and bothered about the prospect of Initiative 1631—the carbon fee on this year’s ballot—passing, and swore that Washington will be the center of attention in November if it does.

So what does the leader of our fair city think about all this? Mayor Durkan was in San Francisco too, and this week, she let The Stranger ascend to her seventh-floor City Hall mayor cave—yes, it has a sick view of Mt. Rainier—to talk about the summit and her climate action plan.

The Stranger: What were your major takeaways from the summit last week?

Mayor Durkan: The overarching thing I learned, or reconfirmed, was we cannot rely on Washington, DC to meet our climate goals. It is absolutely going to take states and local governments, and frankly mayors. Cities banding together to have some very forward-looking programs can really help us meet the Paris Accord deadlines. If you've looked where people live, they're living in cities. Talking to different mayors confirmed some of the things we're targeting, but also to make sure where can we learn from people doing things better, and not just here in the U.S. I spent a lot of time talking to the Mayor of Vancouver, BC, for example, and they're just ahead of us in that affordability crisis. [We can] learn what they have done [as a result] to help you densify as a city, build more affordable housing, and help meet climate goals.

Any cool ideas you picked up?

We started a consortium—Los Angeles was the lead, us as the second—for electric vehicle purchasing power. If a number of cities join together to replace their fleets, we would both get better prices and [manufacturers] would start building better models. We're now going to try to expand that vision to public transit, so if cities and counties joined together and say we want electric buses able to carry X number of passengers, if it's a big enough market, then we can actually get the manufacturers to move to the market.

There are a lot of cool electric buses coming online. Many of them are built in Europe, and if we get Federal Transit Administration dollars, we can't use them because of the Buy America Act, so we want our manufacturers to be building those buses of the future.

Last week, 27 cities around the world claimed to have “peaked” their greenhouse gas emissions and have seen declines over the last five years. All of the major cities on the West Coast were on that list except for Seattle. Is joining that list now a goal of your administration?

Absolutely, we've got to join the list. We know the two main areas we have to hit—building efficiency and vehicle emissions—with a combination of strategies. No one strategy is going to get us to meet those goals.

A lot of eyes at the summit were on Washington State because of Initiative 1631, the proposed first-in-the-nation carbon fee on this November’s ballot. Do you support the initiative?

I support it. I've endorsed it. We have got to move forward on that quickly and unfortunately, what was pending in Olympia last year didn't pass, but I think that the time for talking and trying to get the perfect compromise is over. We've got to pass something and move forward.

The recently announced climate action grant Seattle received from Bloomberg Philanthropies included funds and expertise to study congestion pricing, or tolling private vehicles for entering downtown. When is the earliest we might see congestion pricing in Seattle?

We don't know yet. The grant will give us the ability to accelerate [congestion pricing] by studying it, studying alternatives, figuring out how we can actually make it happen. Congestion pricing is a critical component for cities like ours to get to our climate goals and to have that city we want where there's fewer cars and better mobility for pedestrians and for bikes.

Do you at least have a sense of when we will have a congestion pricing proposal for the public to look at?

By the end of this two-year grant, we will have a proposal, and in that we've got to do a number of things. Number one, there's huge equity concerns, and we want to make sure that when we address this, we're doing the right outreach to people and have addressed the equity concerns. Second, we have to make sure that it is in combination with all of our other mobility strategies.

How do we get better and more transit in Seattle? We're about to enter one of the most difficult mobility periods ever in the history of our city with the period of maximum constraint. The only way we can make progress on that is if we get people out of cars, particularly single occupancy vehicles, and get them onto transit, onto bikes, walking, and other mobility. So there's an intersection here between both what we need as a city and our climate goals.

The hypothetical revenue from congestion pricing, would that go back into some of those mobility needs that you just described?

Yes. We'd want to have broad outreach, but for the foreseeable future, if we're able to get revenues from congestion pricing, we have to devote some of it to housing. And those two things are very linked. If we have more density and people are living closer to where they work, we'll have fewer cars. So I am committed to that for a period of years, any revenue source has to go to affordable housing.

Bullitt Foundation President and CEO Denis Hayes, coordinator of the first Earth Day, said of the ultra-green Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill, "If it was still the world’s largest Living Building after five years, I would consider our effort a failure." The five-year mark came and Bullitt is still the largest living building in Seattle. Looking at the buildings component of your climate action plan, you propose offering incentives and expanding the city’s Living Building Challenge pilot program. Are those measures sufficient or do we need changes to our building code to mandate these highest-level energy efficiency standards that something like the Bullitt Center can achieve?

We can do a combination of both. I sat down with Denis Hayes and said, "Help us construct what our building initiative would look like so that we can actually get people to replicate what you've done." They helped design the program. I'm very bullish on us being able to meet some of the goals with the program we have in place, with the incentives. We've had developers already sign up, who said they wouldn't do it but for these incentives, and it makes it pencil for them. If we can show that we can get these buildings in place, we'll showcase it not just for developers in this region, but I think Seattle's that place where people will actually look globally to see how we're doing things.

So building code changes are not on the table?

We have a pretty strict building code now. We're evaluating what could help us get closer. Everything is tied together—we did such a good job on residential [energy] conservation that it contributed to our increasing utility rates. So as I said to people, the more we save, the more they had to pay. We have to change our business model for City Light.

If we require greater residential efficiency, we've got to give the people who don't have the ability to pay for that the ability to do it because they get left behind. We always have to be evaluating our climate goals against our equity goals to make sure that we further our climate goals and advance equity.

Are your recent transportation decisions, like putting the Center City Connector streetcar line on hiatus or calling for a reset on the Move Seattle levy, consistent with your climate goals?

One hundred percent. We have to build as much transit as we can as quickly as we can. So we have to know how much each project costs, how much it costs to operate, and whether we're spending our money in the right places to move people. On Move Seattle, we were not saying we want to do fewer projects, we just said this is honestly how much money we have, which projects are the highest priority projects for people? By asking the question on the streetcar, we're not saying we're not going to build it, we're just saying how much is it really gonna cost to build? How much is it gonna cost to operate? And is that the right project for Seattle? The answer may be yes, but I think everybody wants to know those answers as we look.

With the Center City Connector, how do you weigh the financial cost versus the climate benefit of greenhouse gas reduction and expanding our transit network as rapidly as you say we should?

We know we need more transit in that corridor. That's indisputable. We've had a lot of people weigh in thinking what you need is not just transit [along 1st Avenue] for the City Center Connector, but you need it now for Key Arena as the hockey team comes, and for Interbay as Expedia moves in. We're looking at what we need on 1st Avenue. We are a different city today than when [the Center City Connector] was envisioned. That's doesn't mean we won't build it, but it may be that may not be enough either if we do build it.

Correction: The article originally stated that KPMG’s report had similar streetcar ridership projections to SDOT. The report predicted an exponential increase in ridership, but not as high as SDOT’s projection.