The relationship between the Seattle City Council and Mayor McGinn doesn’t seem to be improving, and that could mean bad news for light rail supporters. McGinn promised to put a light rail measure on the ballot within two years of being elected — the most logical choice now being November 2011.
The revenue options available to McGinn have only shrunk in recent months as the SR-99 deep-bore tunnel, the crumbling waterfront seawall, and the SDOT funding shortfall have moved a variety of sources near their limits — or will in the near future. The city council is planning to soon create a Transportation Benefit District, according to PubliCola, to help fill SDOT’s shortfall.
A TBD would allow the council to raise serious revenue, with voter approval, through a high vehicle license fee, a property tax increase, a sales-tax increase, or even (unlikely) tolls on local arterials. But the Times notes that the city council — who would have to move any light rail measure to the ballot — is skeptical:
There doesn’t seem to be much fervor on the City Council to seek a near-term vote on light rail, in a time when basic services are threatened by recession and budget cuts, according to Councilman Nick Licata. “I think it’s been pushed back, and I don’t see the public necessarily supporting it, once they know what the costs are,” he said.
Councilman Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the transportation committee, is equally sour on trying a light rail tax anytime soon, even though he lives in West Seattle.
“We don’t even have light rail to the U District yet, and to Roosevelt,” he said, referring to Sound Transit lines due in the early 2020s. King County Metro’s RapidRide bus service, due in 2012 for Ballard and West Seattle, is more productive for those neighborhoods in the near term, he said. He suspects that a westside rail study would sit on the shelf for years.
Rasmussen and four other councilmembers are up for re-election next year.
In another political setback, the council’s transportation committee voted to approve initial funding for an updated transit master plan only after stipulating that the city must study high-capacity transit corridors in a mode neutral way, not picking light rail from the beginning. Though this decision is prudent, the council also added another delay mechanism: the second phase of funding for the master plan will only come after the council signs off on the first phase in January of next year.
The transit master plan must be delivered within a year, according to SDOT spokesman Richard Sheridan, if the council doesn’t delay it again. By the end of March, 2011, SDOT expects to be “heavily into modal analysis” which would include identified corridors, recommended modes, preliminary cost estimates, and a “menu of revenue options,” according to Tony Mazzella, who is the project lead for the master plan. It’s important to note that the transit master plan will not specifically favor one mode or one corridor, and may recommend bus rapid transit or rapid streetcar, or another mode, instead of light rail. My intuition is that light rail is the only mode with the capacity though the biggest corridors in the city.
For a 2011 measure to get on the ballot, there clearly needs to be more political momentum to get through a skeptical council. But if the council remains disinterested and local revenue sources continue to dry up, a local ballot measure might never come up to vote. Sound Transit doesn’t have revenue authority to build new light rail lines — beyond what was approved in ST2 — until the 2030’s. Even if the state legislature changes that, a local spur would certainly break ground much sooner.