Legal constraints on city indebtness. Image from the PI.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn plans to bring a light rail measure to the ballot next year, but can the city afford it? According to the the city’s analysis, perhaps not. The PI reports that the city may be unable to create enough debt to finance an expensive light rail expansion:

The city has about $1 billion in unfunded capital needs outside the viaduct project. The city’s central staff analysts told the city council Monday that a large transit project such as light rail that costs between $1.5 and $2 billion would blow the debt limit, or at least wipe out room for anything else.


Noble said a Seattle light rail line possibly could be paid for through Sound Transit’s taxing authority or a Transportation Benefits District, under which the city could impose a sales tax increase or vehicle licensing fee. It would require voter approval and have to generate about $200 million per year, he said after Monday’s meeting.

Another potential problem is that the City Council is considering a Transportation Benefits District to help pay for viaduct-related costs.

Of course, if the light rail plan McGinn proposes is on the cheap (as McGinn hinted in the campaign, with allusions to Portland’s at-grade Max light rail) or if the city raises its relatively conservative debt limit, things could be different. It’s important to note that McGinn may need state legislation to help with this process, another risk toward passing a plan. But what kind of plan will McGinn be offering? From the report:

“He hasn’t gotten to the point of studying how that might happen, and whether it would go to a vote, or what the funding source would be,” McGinn spokesman Mark Matassa said. “At this point, it’s just something to be discussed.”

Which, if true, is a discouraging sign. A rail plan being presented to voters in November 2011 should be in planning stages right now as to have the details by this time next year. We hope the Mayor’s office is playing coy here. For what it’s worth, the basic structure floating around town is Link-style light rail to West Seattle that connects at SoDo and a SLUT extension to Fremont and Ballard.

43 Replies to “Viaduct, Other Debt Could Wrench McGinn’s Rail “Plan””

  1. McGinn really does need to be studying his Light Rail proposal right now if he expects to have something reasonably well defined to vote on in 2011. I, for one, don’t want a repeat of the monorail debacle where we voted on something that was more wishful thinking then reality. We can’t afford to give mass transit a black-eye by voting on poorly defined plans that are sure to run into trouble later. ST understands this, I don’t think McGinn does.

    That said, I do think that what we do build should be built to Central Link standards at least when considering N-S lines. As geographically constrained as this city is into the N-S direction, it doesn’t make any sense to build on the cheap when serving the N-S corridor. Secondary corridors and E-W corridors maybe, but not in the N-S direction.

    I am curious about the last paragraph in the post however. Link style LR to West Seattle and SC to Ballard? I would have thought that doing it the other way around would better serve the projected demand. And building some sort of SC to WS as an interim solution might somewhat avoid the costs of LR caliber structure across the WS Bridge.

    Hey, but it seems to be a sport for some to shortchange Ballard. Building SC to Ballard would be just one more instance.

    1. As I’ve often pointed out here, a main failure of the monorail project was not poor planing of the system, but simply our city’s inability to afford it.

      Seems like the same may be true for light rail expansion here, no matter how much we want to quickly build more in the City…

      1. Part of having a good plan is having good cost estimates. We can’t afford to go to the voters with a funding package that is insufficient to pay for the promises that are being made. That was the monorail’s mistake, and we can’t afford to repeat it with LR expansion.

      2. The City well afford the Monorail, it just had a crappy funding source. Our City GDP is somewhere around 160 billion. I think we could afford a few of that for a monorail or now for light rail.

        And if you are bringing in new revenue, then it makes sense to raise the debt limit since just like an individuals debt limit is defined by income so to a cities by tax revenue.

        The question is do we make this a priority and can McGinn actually navigate the political environment successfully enough to get his done. I would say right now, given his track record so far, that is my biggest fear around this proposal.

      3. Giffy, you can’t just move money around. There are specific legal requirements attached to most of our funding sources.

      4. Laws can be changed; it simply requires political will. The underlying economics, on the other hand, are a true external constraint.

        Bellingham, for example, could not possibly afford a $2 billion light rail system even if all the legal barriers were removed and they hand 100% consensus amongst their citizens. Without outside resources, they simply would not have enough money. Seattle, on the other hand, could afford such a system if the legal and political hurdles could be overcome.

        Giffy’s point is that the money does exist in Seattle. Economics is not the problem; politics is. That makes a huge difference.

      5. I wouldn’t call local politics the issue. We have plenty of things we really do need to spend money on, and waving away their importance as “politics” doesn’t really help.

        I would say we need authority from the state.

    2. Thinking outside the box for a moment – How much extra would it cost to turn the TBM around after the AWV is bored, then do a second transit tunnel alongside the current DSTT (from IDS to the Westlake turn), maybe daylighting on Western?
      That would give two lanes of rail in both directions, or maybe 3 rail on one level, and BRT on the other, and a ton of utilites in the voids.

      1. The major cost of the AWV tunnel isn’t the machine. Using that same machine, just because it’s here, would be a huge waste. it would be much cheaper to make two smaller diameter tunnels (like current Link tunnels and the DSTT), even with the cost of buying an additional TBM for them.

        They’re going to buy 2 TBM’s and dig 1 mile of tunnel for the first segment of U-link, all for the low, low price of about $160,000,000. Compare that with the 2 mile AWV Tunnel for an estimate of about $1B for the tunneling portion.

        If we could somehow get them to switch it to just a light rail tunnel, they could dig the same length of tunnel through downtown using just the city’s portion of the money. Use the state gas tax money to rebuild Alaskan way as a surface option, and give the rest back.

  2. What I’ve seen from McGinn so far is what I feared all along – a “shoot now, think later” approach to government. Ideas are tossed out without much thought of what is practical, what is realistic, or of the political consequences. So far, this administration can only be described as “amateur hour”.

    And it’s disappointing from a transit perspective, because the only I thing I fear more than NO additional transit is that we support tranist that is planned and managed in a piss-poor manner. That’s how the SMP was managed. All signs point to a McGinn-led light rail measure following the same path of ideology over reality, back-of-a-cocktail napkin math, and refusal to work with others to make something happen.


    1. Well, I for one enjoy hearing plans and ideas and what the Mayor is working on instead of being subjected to press releases trumpeting the latest initiative from the shadowy confines of City Hall.

    2. There needs to be a balance between ambition and practicality. The key is to realize what constraints are “real” and what constraints exist primarily in our imagination. The conventional wisdom is that funding light rail with city money is impossible, so we shouldn’t waste our time. I appreciate that McGinn has refused to accept this fatalism. However, I agree with you that he has, thus far, not demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of how difficult it will be to actually implement his ideas, and that leads to the problems you have highlighted.

      The reality is that building light rail from Ballard to West Seattle will be difficult and expensive. There is no way around that. It will not be easy and cheap as McGinn has suggested, but it is not impossible either. What we need is a leader who understands and accepts how difficult these projects will be and then rises to that challenge.

    3. Yes I agree with you – the new mayor is turning into a disaster for Seattle!

      If he can’t work with the past, then he is doomed to screw up the present and leave nothing to the future.

      There are decisions that have been made in this city for years now and he can’t come in and bulldoze his way through all of it. Seattle will look like an emotional equivalent of a ruined bombed-out Second World War city.

      1. That’s way too pessimistic. Let’s see what he’s accomplished at the end of his term.

  3. Hmm… a proposal to fix the sea wall…(did anyone notice that in the DOT video, it’s the seawall that fails first, then the soil around the posts on the viaduct move and the viaduct falls.)

    ….a proposal to build Light Rail to West Seattle and or Ballard.. and then the city has reached it’s debt funding level.

    One might think that the Viaduct replacement or the tunnel under Alaska way weren’t at the top of McGinn’s priority list?

    If he gets his two projects started he’s made an end run around the viaduct and the tunnel because the only thing left that is affordable is to tear it down….

    I could get behind that plan.

    1. You’re right on track, Gary. I think it’s also about making people understand that when we finance these megaprojects, we are making implicit choices about what we’re NOT going to do. When you frame this debate as a choice between a traffic corridor that doesn’t serve downtown, doesn’t include transit, and costs a shit-ton of money and a light rail system that affords greater transit opportunities, makes it easier to get to and from downtown, and cuts down VMT… well, what would people choose?

  4. Why does the city have to pay for any of the viaduct replacement? I’m assuming the SR in SR99 stands for “state route.” As such shouldn’t the state be paying for it?

    The city didn’t ask for the tunnel which is where a significant portion of the expense is coming from. We voted against the tunnel. The tunnel is being forced on us by the state, so it seems like the state should be picking up that additional cost.

    It would be really disappointing if Transportation Benefits District funds were wasted building roads that can’t even be used by transit.

    1. It’s similar to Bellevue contributing to the cost of tunneling for Link. Seattle isn’t paying for the tunnel (unless the questionable cost overrun clause is enforced). Seattle is agreeing to support street improvements (which it would have had to do with a surface option) and sea wall replacement which it has to do anyway. It makes sense to do the sea wall and the tunnel at the same time so that disruption from construction aren’t spread out farther and to take advantage of some cost savings for things that would otherwise be a duplication of effort.

      Seattle voted against a tunnel but the beloved Mayor Nickles (and the City Council) wanted it.

    2. Unfortunately, many state legislators do not share your interpretation of the situation. Seattle does not speak with one voice. The mayor campaigned against the tunnel, but the city council unanimously endorsed moving forward with the project. Seattle’s environmental community hates the tunnel, but the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce was the primary architect of the tunnel project.

      So who is the real Seattle? Does the Mayor speak for the City or does the Council? Is it the environmental community or the business community? You can’t say that “Seattle” didn’t want this tunnel. A big chunk of “Seattle” does want this tunnel.

      Surely you can point to the public vote; the people voted against the tunnel, but the problem is that the people haven’t voted for an alternative. Surface-transit was never on the ballot and you cannot infer from the vote that did take place that surface-transit would have passed, just like you can’t infer from a statewide public vote to lower the vehicle excise tax that the public wanted to cut transit service by 50%; just like you can’t infer from a public vote to reduce class sizes that the public wants to raise their taxes enough to pay for it.

      Our problem is not that the evil state legislature is imposing its agenda on Seattle; our problem is we can’t agree amongst ourselves on what we want.

      If we actually spoke with one voice, this tunnel issue would have been resolved years ago.

  5. McGinn’s got bigger fish to fry, unfortunately. The learning curve is steep and the staff seems over their heads in various issues.

  6. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the mayor is not playing coy about not being very far along on his rail plan for 2011. People need to remember that almost everything the mayor is interested in doing in this realm relies on a finite and relatively small number of SDOT transportation planners. It seems like things were already quite busy over there (Mercer mess, sea wall, viaduct, 520, pedestrian master plan, bicycle master plan, transit master plan, transportation strategic plan, neighborhood plans, Bell Street Boulevard, First Hill Streetcar, South Spokane, Bridging the Gap, etc., etc. etc.) before he came in, and that everything he is doing significantly increases their workload. And while he has backed off rail for this year, I have not heard him specifically back off a ped-bike ballot initiative for 2010. Most importantly, if he seriously expects to impact 520 and the viaduct/seawall, those are issues with shorter and much more real deadlines than a campaign promise regarding fall of 2011.

      1. Actually, they just need to be paid. And unless you narrow the scope that money will produce all sorts of preliminary alternatives which beg for more studies.

        Unlike studies, talk is cheap and McGinn swung a lot of votes his way by just talking rail. Now he can score points with the fiscal conservatives by saying the City has determined that rail to West Seattle isn’t financially feasible at this time. That leaves him with cover from the left by pointing out how committing funds to rail would cripple the ability of the city to pursue other transit, pedestrian and bike projects.

        I think he knows politics better than most people give him credit for. After all, he did win the election starting from the position of under dog and running with a much smaller campaign war chest.

      2. Can you clarify, Benjamin? Do you mean paying ST to plan for city-built and city-funded light rail, or abandoning ship and making this an ST project requiring a tri-county vote? The latter scares me given this economy and political climate, and given the fact that many of Link’s benefits still might not be visible to the regional electorate in 18 months.

      3. Money was included in ST2 to plan for U District-Ballard-Downtown-West Seattle-Burien light rail, but it isn’t scheduled to be spent for the next few years. The city could put in some money to get that planning done more quickly. I’m guessing that if Seattle does vote for a West Seattle-Ballard line, we’ll just raise the money and hand it over to ST to do all the planning, design, and building. The whole thing that McGinn has been proposing is a vote just for the City of Seattle; an ST3 with further extensions in every subarea will be coming later (perhaps 2016).

    1. Exactly – the plate is huge. Let’s eat off the one we have before we order up another dish.

  7. I personally think the city should stay in the business of streetcars and let Sound Transit stay in the business of light rail. Sound Transit will someday soon put ST3 on the ballot and they will have the taxing authority to be able to build high-quality grade-separated light rail to both West Seattle and Ballard. City money, even using a TBD, really is only going to be able to finance either low-quality light rail or high-quality streetcars. I think McGinn should reframe his promise of light rail towards a promise of high-quality fixed-rail transit, then use a TBD to build out the streetcar network.

    1. Now is better than someday. We’ve already waited 30 or 50 years, and it will take 13 years more for ST2 to be finished. Giving ST some money to accelerate their Seattle planning sounds like an excellent idea. Not $1.5 billion, but even a fraction of that would probably make a singificant difference, and may make it possible to include a Ballard-UW or Ballard-West Seattle line in ST3.

      But the mayor is talking cheap, and I expect that means a SLUT extension to Fremont and Ballard. That really serves a different market, those going to/from Fremont. Fremont’s bus access is not as good as Ballard’s, so that would be an improvement. But it shouldn’t be sold as rapid transit for Ballard, which it’s not.

  8. The other day when I was on Link entering IDS I started thinking about Conlin’s proposal to build light rail from Sodo to West Seattle. Instead of forcing a transfer at Sodo I think it would be possible to bring trains from West Seattle all the way to the IDS by building a new platform in the area that is currently used for bus staging and a stub track for trains to/from West Seattle. This way people would have a same platform transfer to northbound Link trains, a connection to local buses and the streetcar and connections to Sounder.

    1. Building a platform there might screw you if you wanted to continue downtown later.

    2. Really good idea! After busses are out of the tunnel, it would be nice to straighten out the existing tracks there, too, so trains don’t have to crawl in to/out of the IDS at 3 mph.

  9. Big ideas are great, but sometimes a more moderate approach that proves successful can prove a worthwhile idea. I love the monorail, but a simple extension to fulfill the dream of 40 plus years ago might have done well to help sell great expansion.

    Creating a showcase for self sustaining ridership by extending the tracks through Westlake to Pike, and put a station at 2nd and Pike, then continue down Pike to the Second Avenue Extension, then split the rails. Send one down 5th to the ID, then down Airport way to Edgar M way, then over to the south end of Safeco, with a station at just south of Home Plate, then up 1st to Occidental, with a station near Sounder/King Street /Quest.

    Split the N. End, and loop the Center grounds, with a stop between PSC and Key Arena, and a second stop by McCaw Hall. Close loops and run like mad over all the stalled traffic at every major event at either end of town. More than 40 million riders already have used it despite more than 12 metro routes covering the same space.

    Or before you float all the streetcars, bring back the Benson Trolley Line and extend it NORTH to the Cruise ships at pier 90-91 and bio tec firms, and south through the ID to Airport Way, then over to the Stadiums, and loop back up to First and Main. During Viaduct construction, sever at the construction, and run one around the south end, and the other up to the pier and back to the Seattle waterfront.

    Make money from locals and tourists even during viaduct construction.
    Neither of these ideas would cost big. In the case of the Benson Trolley, we already own the equipment, and the right of way… just need to lay track North, and build a shed for maintenance… and there is plenty of room by the viaduct, or on city or port land. Just a thought.

    1. Last year the cruise ships brought over 800,000 passengers to Seattle. This one number alone should inspire the building of a streetcar from Pier 90 to Pioneer Square. And this would be a transit project that really would relieve congestion- Elliot Ave W from Pier 90 to Broad Street has been a traffic headache for 40 years.

      In fact, this route is perfect for a historical trolley. Those are high-platform cars, but on this route there is very little street boarding. From where you hit the waterfront (south of Colman Dock) all the way to Pier 90, all of the boarding can easily be done on high platforms. There are companies in America that build new ‘historical’ streetcars, so it would be relatively easy to add more rolling stock if demand was too high.

      This would be a slam dunk, if McGinn was really interested in moving people from cars to transit.

      1. Thanks SC… I have been suggesting this to deaf ears at the city council for 2 years now, before the 10 year long agreement between the cuise lines and the port. Amgen, a port space Lessor, would also benefit. Currently, Metro service along that stretch is tough enough that Amgen pays a private bus company to run a shuttle several times an hour all day, every business day.

        The excuse I got back on boiler plate text was intruption from pending viaduct construction. I responded by pointing out that if you ran it from the WSF dock, with 4.1 million walk ons, past pier 66, with another 300,000 passenger transits, then past the SAM Sculpture Park, orginially DESIGNED TO HAVE A BENSON TROLLY STOP, then Amgen and the pier, it would be all city and port land, and would be profitable within a year. Before they stopped runnning it, (and before we had cruise ship piers and two hotels on the line, and all the condos) it averaged 200,000 riders a year.

        They pointed out the need for a garage for it, and I pointed out it was ALWAYS in a temporary shed… and another could be under the Magnolia Viaduct, or at Pier 86…

        They stopped writing.

        SC, we need to start a movement. Pragmatics for Seattle. sigh.

      2. Sadly, I live too far out of Seattle to put any physical presence in this.

        What you got was boilerplate from Nickel’s departments. He didn’t want to distract attention from the Central Line. Nobody is listening because people in Seattle aren’t putting the pressure on.

        You need a group that can make physical visits to officials, present maps or powerpoint presentations, and link interested parties to form a constituency. For example, Pioneer Square merchants would like to get passengers from the cruise ships. There are people who promote tourism in Seattle who would support a historical trolley. A business chartering buses to move their employees would probably be willing to sign a petition.

        The best part is, you can get started by drinking! There are a couple of guys in Seattle who were dangerously close to doing something last year, and if they could find a few more who wanted to have a ‘meet-up’ you might have a quorum. E-mail me at tscott-at-sinclair-dot-net if you’d like their e-mail addresses. Anyone else should also feel free to e-mail me about connecting, or you can leave comments at the Waterfront Streetcar blog.

  10. If McGinn is serious about LR from Ballard to West Seattle (and I believe he is) then he should try and find the $$ for Sound Transit to do comprehensive study NOW. Otherwise, it’s all just speculation.

    BTW, what’s up the the constant short changing of Ballard (street car) in favor of LR to West Seattle? Are there no politicos in Ballard? Certainly Ballard has far more people, density, and room for growth than West Seattle? How about LR to Ballard and a street car to West Seattle!!!

    1. The reason is that the City has limited amounts of money it can spend, but we don’t want to build any sub-standard (at-grade) light rail. Therefore, we can use city money to build a streetcar to Fremont and Ballard and a grade-separated light rail connector from SODO to the Junction for now, and in ST3 they could build an actually 2nd Ave Tunnel and grade-separated extension of the West Seattle line to Ballard.

    2. Actually it seems Ballard is less dense than West Seattle (3,500 vs 4,400 per sq mile). I’m about as far from an expert on Seattle neighborhoods as you can get but those numbers don’t surprise me. Ballard being more dense than W. Seattle would have surprised me. Room for growth is inversely proportional to density.

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