Photo by the Author
Photo by the Author

It can be hard to remember now, but Seattle Transit Blog took a while to back candidate Mike McGinn in the general election. Our first choice, incumbent Greg Nickels, received our primary endorsement based mostly on his historic personal achievements in building rail and passing new rail plans. That was in spite of our near total agreement on policy with challenger Mike McGinn, in particular a unique commitment to the idea that car access should not have absolute primacy in a city. We went with the candidate who had a solid record of effectiveness.

McGinn detractors might claim that the call was a good one; after all, Mr. McGinn’s efforts did not cause Seattle elites to seriously reconsider their commitment to an irresponsible* deep-bore tunnel. There are no new big transportation investments coming out of his time in office. The closest Seattle came was a 10-year, $60 vehicle license fee, which would have raised $200m. $100m of that would have gone to speed and reliability improvements for Seattle’s most important bus routes. Much smaller segments of funding would have gone to street repairs, bike infrastructure, pedestrian improvements, and streetcar planning. After it gained unanimous support of the Council, voters rejected this almost boringly worthwhile proposal.

However, just getting to the point of a ballot measure required significant achievements. People are quick to dismiss plans, but in fact by 2009 the region had nearly exhausted its actionable ones. Seattle’s Transit Master Plan dated to 2005 and still assumed construction of the Monorail; Sound Transit had finally realized its next-stage construction plan and had no firm idea of where to go next; and the state-of-the-art in bicycle infrastructure had evolved considerably.

The McGinn administration started and finished new bicycle and transit master plans that provide an excellent list of projects that the Murray administration would be wise to use as a guide. More importantly, by continuously advocating for rail to Ballard, by city-only means if necessary, McGinn encouraged the Sound Transit Board to accelerate its own planning in time for public vote as early as 2016 — at least four, and probably eight, years earlier than originally envisioned. Of course, you can’t ride a plan, and it’s hard to predict how those plans will evolve, die, or thrive in the future.

A considerably brighter result occurred on the land use front. Mike McGinn was a consistent force for turning as few people away from Seattle as possible, something that can only be done by building more units. More concretely, the city reduced or eliminated parking requirements ($) along frequent transit corridors, striking a blow for density, transit, economic efficiency, housing affordability, the environment, the pedestrian experience, and freedom all at once.

Although the big package of transportation improvements failed, many bus and bike improvements did happen on McGinn’s watch. The new Dexter Avenue is a revolutionary street design for Seattle. Road diets improved safety. Transit speed and reliability (bus bulbs, RTIS, TSP, queue jumps) on Rainier and Market/45th helped riders. Denny Way will get new trolley wire. RapidRide came with numerous bus stop improvements, signal priority, and miles of new bus lanes on Seattle’s most crowded roads. Except for RapidRide, these were all funded either directly by SDOT (including Nickels era Bridging the Gap funds) or through grants won by SDOT. More importantly, none of them could have happened without a sympathetic administration.

There’s a certain unfairness to blaming the results of a democratic system on specific elected officials. Morally, the failure to implement a transit plan lies with the Council that delayed and watered it down before voting for it, the people that campaigned against it, and ultimately the voters that rejected it. It doesn’t lie with a Mayor to whom we are grateful for taking the correct side of almost every argument he was in.

However, as our initial endorsement four years ago indicated, we judge our elected leaders on results, no matter who they have to run over to get there. Mike McGinn achieved more than most people will appreciate; although positive and lasting, the gains are subtle: people who can live in Seattle who otherwise wouldn’t, buses that now show up on time that otherwise wouldn’t, bicyclists and pedestrians not killed by speeding cars. Ironically, a man who came to office as a revolutionary will have an evolutionary legacy.

* Irresponsible environmentally, fiscally, and in light of declining vehicle miles traveled.

44 Replies to “Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn”

  1. Of course the “big project” an un-watered down transit plan would have gotten us was a shitty one-way couplet connecting two conceptually separate rail lines along two of the boringest avenues downtown that’s a perfect example of this region’s lack of long-term planning (which admittedly the failure of the VLF even more perfectly exemplifies) that eventually got replaced with a far more practical line along 1st that a lot of people knew was the better approach all along.

    1. …or maybe the first thing the earlier funding would have achieved was to reach that conclusion, and actually had the money to do something about it.

    2. “two of the boringest avenues downtown”

      I don’t think that’s a valid yardstick to measure the worth of a transit project. Boring because it consists mostly of tall office buiildings, government buildings, a couple of old theaters, some high-end retail and the odd bank, hotel and residential building?

  2. McGinn didn’t do much to help pedi strains from getting killed by drunk drivers and Seattle now has a 45 million dollar lawsuit on its hands (a justified lawsuit in my opinion). McGinn was horrible and go hope the door doesn’t hit his bike tires too hard on his last dark, lonely, rainy ride home from office. Oh, he’ll probably have a driver take him.

    1. He did exactly the things a mayor can do to prevent cyclists from being killed by drunk drivers. He tried to get bar hours staggered for better police and transit coverage. He built protected bicycle tracks and won a master plan that will keep them coming. He fought for transit so that drunk people can get home without driving. If you want to save people, be honest, use your real name, and fight with us for the things that really help.

      1. “He tried to get bar hours staggered for better police and transit coverage.”

        “He fought for transit so that drunk people can get home without driving.”

        What do you want?

  3. “voters rejected this almost boringly worthwhile proposal.”

    How can we get around democracy and get the mayor and funding WE want?

    1. Doesn’t it see the only thing holding true urbanism back is the will of the people?

      1. I don’t know that bus reliability improvements and pothole repairs are “true urbanism,” but whatever. The “will of the people” elected Mike McGinn and unelected him, approved ST2 and voted down the VLF. So I’m not sure what conclusions to draw about “the people.”

      2. The mayor was heavily outspent in his re-election bid, and still almost got re-elected. Money to waste on hiring armies of trolls to post kindergartenish name-calling junior high stuff only goes so far in this town. I think Ed Murray got elected because people liked his accomplishments on various issues.

        I like what Ed did for ST in Olympia, back when he was focused on it a few years back. I love what Ed has done for bringing our civil rights laws out of the 16th century. I don’t like that he campaigned on style more than substance, but again, I think he got elected in spite of that, since both candidates had records, and Mike did more things in office to tick off some people with money than Ed did. The things Mike did that ticked off some people with money, I still support.

      3. Also, the City Council got the supreme vote of No Confidence when the districting initiative passed by such a wide margin when similar measures had failed so many times. One could say it was a victory for NIMBYs, but since the council has leaned pro-NIMBY and the no-growth candidate for mayor didn’t do so well, it’s hard to say what the people really want. (A little proportional representation might help in that regard, but the voters are going to have a honeymoon with districting until they want a divorce after a couple cycles of all incumbents getting re-elected.)

      4. Perhaps his tunnel stance kept McGinn from being re-elected… BUT so far there have been no answers given to any of the questions he raised four years ago. We still don’t have a plan for cost overruns. We still don’t have a workable toll plan. And Gregoire’s promises were worthless — just as he said they were.

      5. “And Gregoire’s promises were worthless — just as he said they were.”

        At least McGinn was elected.

    2. “How can we get around democracy and get the mayor and funding WE want?”

      Move to Swaziland? (they are ruled by a king there – so no democracy to circumvent)
      Employment and transportation infrastructure there are quite a bit worse than Seattle though.

    3. “How can we get around democracy and get the mayor and funding WE want?”

      I am so glad you posted that comment. Its exactly what was wrong with your mayor. He too saw democracy as an obstacle to circumvent. We learned that in his first six months in office. Oh yeah…… his final year he figured out he better start listening to his constituency but by then, it was too late. Its why he got trounced in November. There is a lesson to be learned.

      1. I don’t think 51-48 counts as “trounced”.

        On the score for “democracy as an obstacle to circumvent”, he got elected, in part, because the powers that be were circumventing democracy on the DBT. I fail to see how anything he did counts as circumventing democracy.

  4. Yes! The mayor should be there to check every driver for sobriety before they get behind the wheel. And he rode a bike!!!! What sort of adult rides a bike?

    For a town that is as supposedly smart as Seattle, we sure get stupid about our mayors. I wonder how Mayor Milquetoast will handle transit?

  5. The people pretty much voted McGinn out the day the tunnel vote went down in flames. Mcginn’s Waterloo:

    [embedded video]

    1. No. that was Trafalgar, or maybe the Russian Campaign or something. Waterloo was Napoleon’s last and complete defeat. McGinn still had life after the Tunnel defeat, though some of the lustre was certainly gone.

    2. Which vote are you talking about — the public advisory vote (via the ballot) or the city council vote? The city council approved the tunnel, which was the start of a lot of bad blood between the council and the mayor. It also got The Stranger on the wrong side of Conlin, which played a big part in his defeat.

      The advisory vote was pretty much meaningless. It was an advisory vote, and if you went by the plurality (there was no majority) you would have built a new viaduct. But The Seattle Times called it a loss for the tunnel, so that’s the way a lot of people interpreted it. This suggested that McGinn actually came out ahead in the vote. If Bertha’s problems had occurred just a week or two earlier, McGinn might have pulled out the victory. But that sort of thing occurs often in politics. Had the financial crisis occurred six months later, Obama might have lost — had it occurred a year earlier, he would have won by a bigger margin and would have been able to do a lot more to fix the mess.

      Back to the advisory vote — it was a mess. A lot of people (myself included) were really ignorant with regards to the issues. My guess is that a lot of people would have simply supported a fix of the viaduct. However, that wasn’t possible. As a result, we have a tunnel which a lot of people assume is similar to the viaduct, just underground. It isn’t. For example, it has only two lanes each way. Not two regular lanes and a carpool lane, but two lanes. That is nuts. There are no exits downtown, nor on Western. Almost all of the cool things about the Viaduct will be gone. Meanwhile, there are a number of people who would have supported doing absolutely nothing but tearing down the viaduct. But most of the folks who supported a surface option didn’t want that. They wanted transit, I-5 and surface improvements. There are plenty of people (including those in West Seattle) who would have gladly supported an “I-5, transit and surface” improvement package, if billed as such. But it wasn’t, and that was one of the failings of that campaign (which, as I said, was meaningless anyway).

    1. You may have noticed that STB did not endorse Dr. Sawant. Are you trying to change the editorial board’s mind?

  6. Excellent article. My only complaint with the mayor was his infatuation with streetcars, a love affair that is shared by at least one member of the council (Bagshaw) if not others. I wish Sally and her cohorts would travel north once in a while (to Vancouver) instead of south (to Portland) before talking about transit envy. Streetcars, like BRT or light rail do make sense in certain circumstances. I just think we could have gotten way more quality transit from our dollars by spending it on other things.

    Other than that, I think the mayor was pretty good and this article does an excellent job of explaining that. I especially like the way you cover the political aspect of all of this — your article about proposition one losing explained various factors that could have played a part in the voters decision, without trying to guess which one was the biggest factor.

    1. Love it. Lame coming in; lame going out. McSchinn lost not because he didn’t kiss the right rings. He lost because a large majority of Seattle residents didn’t want him to have a second term. Why? Because he stunk as mayor.

      1. About everyone I talk to can’t really articulate why they disliked McGinn. Just the usual “not a team player, divisive” etc. One concrete complaint from one of my friends was “he ‘interfered’ with a carefully crafted negotiated agreement over the tunnel”. — my friends obviously can’t fathom a future without cars.

        It became rather obvious that indeed McGinn had pissed off a shadowy elite who then funded a pretty effective smear campaign against him. What pisses me off is that the supposedly smart people of Seattle fell for it. And that progressive voices like the Stranger haven’t said much to expose who these actors are as well as their machinery of mass deception.

        With the combination of the new council districts and a Mayor that is beholden to those elite forces, Seattle is no longer a city that had a “provincial” way of doing things and will now operate like any other big city. Just you watch.

      2. We could discuss the police chief that wouldn’t come to work for him. Apparently other leaders didn’t like McGinn either.

      3. “Could you list some reasons you think he “stunk” as mayor?”

        “He rode his bike to work.”

        Okay, you got me there.

        What I’m really digging for is what are the policy disagreements people had with the mayor. What policies did McGinn push that you would like to see Mayor-elect Murray change?

      4. As someone that usually agrees with McGinn on policy, I really do find the complaints about his leadership style and the way he does the work of government troubling. It would be less troubling for someone in a legislative role, but in an executive role it really does give me pause when it comes from people that have worked with him personally in so many different roles, people with no interest in his job, people with no stake in the tunnel, people that generally agree with him on policy, say that he’s not productive.

    2. I’m sorry to see McGinn go, too. And it probably wasn’t much fun for him to lose, but he can console himself with the fact that he doesn’t have to deal with Bertha being stuck in the tunnel.

    3. @Mic Bingo! One has to kiss the rings of power to survive in political office in Seattle and Washington State. It amazes me that so many local progressives are blind to this fact. The establishment always wins in the end.

    4. Not knowing what rings to kiss sounds a little revisionist. Part of his whole pitch was that he wasn’t a ring kisser and I think that is part of his appeal for a lot of folks. I think he did a bad job of staffing his team – overly relying on campaign folks as opposed to people who knew how to get things done at the City. I think he would have been a better fit on the council – maybe he’ll still run next time in the new district.

      1. I don’t want to pick on you excessively because this is pretty common, but… as Professor Frank would have it… Do you even know what revisionism is, little dawg?

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