A Transportation Plan both Radical and Familiar

Image via seattle.gov.
Images via seattle.gov.

It’s been a few days since Mayor Ed Murray released the details of his proposed transportation levy, which would nearly double the expiring Bridging the Gap levy, and a couple of things stand out about the framing of and early reaction to the proposal.

First, Murray has taken pains to avoid calling the renewal a “renewal,” describing it instead as a sui generis “transportation vision that integrates our plans for transit, walking, biking, and freight.”

Back in 2011, supporters of the Families and Education Levy renewal adopted the opposite approach, referring to the tax measure a simple “renewal” despite the fact that it was, in fact, a doubling of the previous levy.

By calling the levy what it is, rather than attempting to underplay its size and significance, Murray is expressing confidence that he can convince voters to nearly double what they spend on basic city infrastructure.

Second, the media have been largely laudatory or neutral toward the levy, reinforcing the public’s generally blasé response to the proposal so far. The attitude of the press toward major mayoral initiatives influences public opinion in ways that can subtly boost, or erode, a mayor’s effectiveness; see, for example, former mayor McGinn, and his unsuccessful efforts to build citywide broadband, pass the $20 car-tab fee, uphold the head tax, and find a new police chief.

Murray, in contrast, already has an impressive track record after just over a year in office, including: The phased-in $15 minimum wage, universal preschool, city funding for Metro service, and … a new police chief.

The transportation levy may also get a boost from the fact that both supporters and detractors view Murray as a compromiser, not a crusader. This common view has given him breathing room to propose a levy full of proposals that, under McGinn, would have been called radical: Road diets, completion of the “Missing Link,” higher parking rates, and lower speed limits all over the city.

Rainier Ave. S., in particular, is a focus for Murray, after years of inaction by the city. For years, residents’ pleas for traffic calming fell on deaf ears until a car literally plowed through the window of a street-level business in August of last year, injuring seven.) As I wrote on Seattle Transit Blog earlier this month, all three of Murray’s proposals to make Rainier safer

included rechannelization, or a “road diet.” Perhaps it’s a testament to Murray’s coalition-centric leadership style, or a reflection of his predecessor Mike McGinn’s more contentious reputation. Perhaps it’s changing attitudes and the shift away from driving alone. Whatever the reason, what was once unthinkable (a road diet? On Rainier?) is now Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. After years of indecision from SDOT, it finally appears there’s no turning back.

That’s true in many other parts of the levy, and in the mayor’s companion “Move Seattle” transportation plan. The proposed investments are substantive, substantial, and potentially transformative.

They include:

• $10 million to begin design and engineering to finally build the badly needed, and inexcusably eliminated, Graham light rail station at South Graham Street and MLK. No longer will Link light rail passengers wonder, “Why is there such a big gap between the Columbia City and Othello stations?” or “How am I supposed to get to DSHS—walk from Columbia City down to Rainier Beach?”

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• $15 million to fill in the funding gap left when the federal government declined to give Sound Transit a $15 million grant to help pay for a $36.5 million pedestrian bridge connecting North Seattle Community College and the surrounding neighborhoods to the new light rail station at Northgate. (The city already planned to put in $5 million in matching funds, and Sound Transit had pledged $5 million more; the $10 million went away when the agency failed to win the federal grant.)

The bridge was proposed as an alternative to Sound Transit’s initial plan to build a parking garage that would have served just 8 percent of passengers boarding at the station.

• Funding for the Missing Link of the Burke-Gilman Trail, which has been delayed for years by lawsuits and the Ballard industrial lobby, which has argued that cyclists should settled for a circuitous, slow alternative route through the heart of downtown Ballard.

• Funding for 50 miles of protected bike lanes on arterial streets and 60 miles of neighborhood greenways, more frequent crosswalk painting, new sidewalks, new bus rapid transit corridors, and more bike parking.
By pointing out that Murray’s plan hasn’t encountered any significant pushback so far, I don’t mean to imply that the proposal won’t encounter any opposition. It will. (Hell, I’m not exactly a fan of his proposal to “improve” traffic signal synchronization for cars, which I see as a way to make traffic faster and more dangerous at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists, and other nonmotorized road users for whom “synchronization” means “don’t walk” signals every block and speeding traffic on crowded downtown corridors).
But still: What a difference a mayor who’s perceived to be cool-headed (ha, says every reporter who ever worked with Murray in the state legislature), consensus-oriented, and willing to listen (or seem to listen) makes. Collaboration and compromise, the tendencies for which Murray’s critics have always assailed him, appear to be working.

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