Three Subtle Things a Mayor Can Do

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A new mayor taking office is an opportunity to reevaluate what’s been going on over the past term. Mayor Murray certainly doesn’t need me to tell him that Seattle is in dire need of more buses and more trains; nor does he particularly need to take advice from me. However, if he asked me what non-obvious transit issues a Mayor can make a big difference on, here’s what I would tell him:

1. Density and Zoning.. This is familiar to anyone who reads STB regularly, but it’s worth mentioning the connection between lots of work and housing units within walking distance of transit stops and that transit being cost-effective. Likewise, parking minimums that require everyone to subsidize car use make it more likely that someone will choose to utilize the money they’ve been forced to sink into a parking space rather than take transit. The Mayor’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) creates the opening bid for upzones around station areas; a good first bid is important, as it’ll be watered down by the Council and by “neighborhood activists” that never saw an upzone they would like.

2. Station Placement . The Sound Transit board has a strong inclination to defer to local jurisdictions as to the precise placement of its stations. That’s especially true when the jurisdiction has a representative on the Board, which will describe Mayor Murray*. The traditional way that the process works is that ST tentatively puts the station very close to an important regional attraction or urban center, because that it is in the best interests of future riders and residents. Then, the location is either value engineered away, or local business owners fear the disruption that construction will cause and lobby to have the station moved somewhere less useful. Holding the line on station location is a great opportunity to be a statesman focused on the future rather at
than a politician obsessed with transitory interests.

3. Transit speed and reliability improvements. With Metro in perpetual crisis, all of the attention is understandably focused on filling the service hour hole. That’s a shame, because priority treatment for buses and streetcars boost ridership and permanently reduce operating costs. Moreover, they are traditionally a city-level responsibility and are therefore a focus of the existing master plan. In general, these projects are of trivial expense in the scope of a major city’s budget. In many cases, it’s a question of policy not budget: for example, taking a handful of parking spaces on First Avenue makes a streetcar there cheaper, faster, and better in every respect.

* We don’t know if Seattle will retain Richard Conlin’s old seat, or if it’ll go to someone from Shoreline. [UPDATE: Mike O'Brien will also represent Seattle on the Council. Full story to follow tomorrow.]

About Martin H. Duke

Martin joined the blog in Fall 2007 and became Editor-in-Chief in 2009. He is originally from suburban DC, but has lived in the Greater Seattle area since 1997. He resides with his family in Columbia City and works as a software engineer in Lower Queen Anne.




Comments

  1. 4. Do something BOLD. Exercise the cities ownership of street ROW, and examine all arterials for their highest and best use. Transit/HOV lanes would be at the top of my list, and parking would rank somewhere near the bottom on the busy streets.
    (ie: parking along Rainier Ave where buses MUST split the lanes, or eventually own a vehicle door and maybe a person)

  2. Stephen F says:

    Considering that the Mayor has stated that “hiring a new Police Chief is the most important thing” that his administration will do, don’t hold your breath. There ain’t nothing bold about Murray, just a blathering money waster. Imagine how many small projects we could do with all the money we’re wasting because of his unnecessary severance packages, new pension payouts, and egregiously expensive new hires, and training/orientation of the said new hires when we already had highly qualified and capable city staff.

    • Do you know for sure that these SPD leadership personnel have separate contracts other than standard civil service policies? There shouldn’t be a “severance package” for civil service employees. As for pension payouts, pensions are actuarial entities and changes in personnel shouldn’t have any material effect on the pension fund.

      As one who was not a supporter of Murray’s candidacy, I have to say, I was tremendously impressed with the bold and swift actions he took shortly after his inauguration to invigorate change at SPD. There ARE serious problems with SPD especially with trust and perceptions in my end of the city. These measures create a possibility for real change. What it also did was to create a perception that this Mayor is open to creative processes for change and that we as advocates of a urbanist future, can work with this Mayor. Let’s hope so.

  3. Matt the Engineer says:

    Mayor Murray,

    I don’t know you, and what I do know scares me – you’ve spent a significant time in car-loving Olympia helping run our highway-loving state. Any interaction you’ve had with transit would have been at the 10,000 foot level, not dealing with the nuanced density, parking, and community relations issues that take a significant amount of time and effort to understand in this city. That said, I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and will assume you’ll jump right into these issues with an open mind. Don’t let me down.

  4. reality based commute says:

    Mike O’Brien was confirmed yesterday to replace Richard Conlin on the ST board. Dow nominated Murray to replace McGinn, MOB to replace Conlin, and Upthegrove to replace Patterson.

  5. If those are the subtle or non-obvious things he can do, what are the obvious things? Those three things seem pretty top-of-the-list things to do.

  6. Those are all good things to do, but his biggest transportation priority should be pressuring the legislature to fix Metro’s funding problem, as Seattle is certainly the biggest customer of the service.

    • I forget which radio station had this on, but one of them interviewed Rodney Tom and asked about the Metro funding issues and potential legislation. His response was that if anything passed to rescue Metro, it would make it tougher to pass any road improvements later.

      If that is indeed the case, then Murray should definately push to get some transit legislation through now.

      • As was discussed on previous threads, we should fix the metro situation within our own borders (Seattle/King Co) so that it is not the only thing Seattle gets out of this giant transportation package deal.

        Giving up on getting any additional transit funds for just additional authority to tax ourselves for Metro is not a good option.

      • Alex Bailey says:

        +1 Charlie B

        The so called Plan B and/or Plan C look better than any current proposals by the state legislature.

  7. Alex Bailey says:

    On item number 3 I have two questions.

    1. If King County and Seattle are already having difficulties finding funds to save metro service, then where would the funding for transit speed and reliability improvements come from? I suppose painting lines and putting up signs is much cheaper than running bus service, but is it really that simple?

    2. How many speed and reliability improvements could be gotten from having a concerted effort to provide transit only and/or HOV lanes on many of the critical transit corridors in the city? In other words, what improvements would have to be made to get a 5% (or 10%, 17% etc.) boost in service, holding operational funding constant?

    While David L’s frequent corridor maps are excellent, a transit reliability master plan map, with estimated operating improvements, would be really fascinating to see.

    • Martin H. Duke says:

      The speed and reliability funds would mostly come from the city (which is why this message is directed at the mayor), although I’m hopeful that Plan B has at least a bit of capital funding.

      There is a “transit reliability master plan”, it’s the Seattle Transit Master Plan. Have a look.

  8. I would add the following:

    More bike lockers, especially close to Husky Stadium station as well as other spots along the Burke Gilman. The new mayor says he can get along with people and make things happen. So, prove it; talk to the folks at the UW and have them put in a nice big bike cage. Add a bunch of lockers close to the Ave where the buses run (for the next few years).

    BRT Stop at Fremont (with elevator) — http://seattletransitblog.com/2013/04/04/connecting-fremont-to-rapidride-e/

    Gondolas — Mayor McGinn never talked about gondolas. I can see why. He had an undeserved reputation as being flaky, or too green (only cared about bikes, etc.). But the new mayor doesn’t have that political problem. The one thing I didn’t like about the old mayor was his infatuation with streetcars. The new mayor should look at building a gondola from the Capitol Hill station to South Lake Union. This is practical, cheap, and would be a great test case. We aren’t building high speed rail to South Lake Union for a long time, so there is no conflict.

    Bridge over Northgate — Just make it happen.

    130th Station — This requires cooperation with Sound Transit. If I remember right, this isn’t that expensive. He could try and reach an agreement whereby we pay for it, but ST pays us back if they find the money. Have ST guarantee that it will be in the next tax package as well.

    With regards to zoning, the simplest thing to do would be to remove the parking requirement for low rise zones. But if parking is required, then it must follow existing standards (parking in back, accessible via one lane, etc.). As long as you are changing the low rise zones, get rid of the fence requirement, and allow more units. All of that (or even the parking change alone) would give developers a choice — build the same number of units with parking, or build more units without parking. My guess is that they would go with the latter, and the city would be much better off with it. As long as you make the change, throw the other side a bone — go along with the silly LR3 height restriction (Clark’s idea). We are talking about a very small amount of lost density that would be more than made up for by getting rid of the parking requirement and allowing more units.

    Also liberalize the mother in law apartment rules.

  9. I’d like to see the City be more aggressive about making developers improve the access and environment of nearby transit stops. If we’re giving them financial windfalls of upcoming and lower parking requirements, we should be able to get back improved pedestrian path lighting, improved bus stop designs, better and larger shelters, and bicycle parking near the stops for transit riders – not to mention the basics like fixing the broken sidewalks that lead to the bus stops in the first place!

  10. Flying Pete says:

    I believe the new mayor will listen to the neighborhoods not unelected density advocates and their developer supporters.

    • I didn’t know neighborhoods talked. Or what sound do they make exactly — is it a moaning, creaking sound? Maybe some neighborhoods (like Capitol Hill or Belltown) make a thump, thump, thump sound. Personally, I think the new mayor will listen to the folks on this blog, because they are his neighbors.

  11. Courty Stanton says:

    This may be a desperately stupid question, but can the author (or another commenter) explain to me what the phrase “value engineered” means?

    It’s in section two:

    “Then, the location is either value engineered away, or local business owners fear the disruption that construction will cause and lobby to have the station moved somewhere less useful.”

    • Martin H. Duke says:

      “Value engineering” is a euphemism for cutting costs by eliminating or degrading features. For example, Sound Transit “value engineered” the Bellevue Link station by moving it further away from downtown Bellevue.

    • Value Engineering means to work on the design to reduce costs. I generally take it to mean that you don’t impact too much the quality or functionality of the project.

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        You certainly try not to affect the quality or function, but it generally starts from the other direction. Your project is estimated at $X, but your budget is only, say, 0.9 x $X. So you try to redesign the project for a lower cost with the smallest impact to the core goals of the design. Of course, generally most aspects of a design were there because they’re important to the project, so value engineering has the reputation of harming a project in general. When working on century-scale infrastructure, for example, we should probably be looking first to adjust our budgets rather than adjust our design.

      • Courty Stanton says:

        Thanks all! That’s helpful to know.

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