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.