Ellis with STB’s Ben Schiendelman riding Link in 2008

Seattle civic icon Jim Ellis passed away yesterday. Here’s a brief summary of his legacy, from a 2013 Seattle Times profile by Thanh Tan:

Ellis has played a vital role in shaping our region’s heritage, from the cleanup of Lake Washington in the 1950s to the formation of Metro and founding of “Forward Thrust,” a series of bold bond measures in 1968 that created the Kingdome, parks and trails, public swimming pools, fire departments, sewage districts, neighborhood improvement, arterial highways and a youth service center. In the 1980s, he led efforts to develop the convention center in downtown Seattle. By the 1990s, Ellis was still active, helping to create the Mountains to Sound Greenway.

“I don’t like the ‘I’ word,” he says emphatically throughout our two-hour visit. All those efforts “were very much a committee thing. It’s fascinating to see how everything we’ve undertaken, when we had far-sided leadership — and were willing to pay for the bill — has met expectations and is serving us well today.”

It’s hard to imagine Metropolitan Seattle today without Ellis’ work. Here’s a bit from his History Link page on Seattle’s Forward Thrust. While the failure to build a rail system may be the most memorable part of Forward Thrust, many of the other components actually passed and transformed the region”

In February 1968, after countless committee meetings, hearings, and exchanges of opinion pieces in the local newspapers, King County voters approved seven of 12 individual “Forward Thrust” bond propositions. Among them were measures to build a $40 million multi-purpose domed stadium (the Kingdome), the Seattle aquarium, and 25 county swimming pools. One of the propositions set aside $118 million to develop new parks and trails, including Discovery, Freeway, Gas Works, Waterfront, Marymoor, and Luther Burbank parks and the beginning of the Burke-Gilman Trail. Voters also approved bonds to improve Woodland Park Zoo and Sea-Tac Airport. They rejected a low-income housing levy and bonds to help build a rapid transit system.

The transit measure won 50.8 percent of the vote — far short of the 60 percent “supermajority” needed for passage. Concerned over the prospect of losing more than $600 million in federal funds that had been earmarked for the project, Ellis and other transit backers resubmitted it two years later. This time, with unemployment soaring as a result of the so-called “Boeing Bust,” only 46 percent of the voters accepted the measure. In 1995, voters defeated a third effort to develop regional rail rapid transit. (A scaled down “Sound Transit” plan was adopted the next year.)

The failure of these early rapid transit measures was a bitter disappointment for Ellis. The original Forward Thrust referendum, with its approved federal match, “would have saved us $6 to 8 billion,” he said. “It would have been in place in 1985. It would have built more track than Sound Transit is doing. The last bonds would have been retired in 2006. You know who got our share of the federal money? Atlanta. And they built a beautiful light rail system” (Ellis interview).

What a life. You can also read the Secretary of State’s profile of Ellis.

To go deep on Forward thrust, check out Oran’s historical documents gallery on Flickr for some glimpses of the Forward Thrust plan and read city council candidate Shaun Scott’s detailed series on the era at The Urbanist.

More Ellis-related pieces from STB Andrew’s piece on Ellis from right before Link opened, former Mayor Greg Nickels’ guest op-ed about picking up the light rail torch, and Oran’s whimsical 1990 “map” of Forward Thrust as it might have looked.

10 Replies to “The legacy of Jim Ellis”

  1. The silent generation gave us the likes of Jim Ellis. Today we get Tim Eyman. Oh, how times have changed.

    Thank you for your citizenship Mr. Ellis, you made this a better place to live.

    1. They’re part of larger trends. The shock of WWII and everybody being drafted and sent overseas on top of the shock of the Depression and WWI, busted a lot of the inequality and class hierarchy that preceded it, and they returned in 1945 determined to make society better for everybody and their children and prevent another war like that. The Silent generation grew up during that war and its aftermath. Ellis’s work hearkens back to earlier movements like the City Beautiful movement which gave us King Street Station, San Francisco’s civic center, Los Angeles’s train station, etc.

      Then something changed in the 1970s. A group of people who had always been anti-New Deal, anti-union, and anti-desegregation (or at least one or two of these) gained power, inspired by Ayn Rand “meritocracy” and libertarian “freedom from taxation”, and society drifted more toward looking out for number one. The automobile cult also kept growing. 1950s families dreamed of a house on a cul-de-sac, but it was Generation X who grew up in them in the 70s and 80s. Seattle has been automobile-happy since the 1920s (streetcarless Aurora Bridge, dismantling the streetcars, one-way streets, I-5 and 520). That was the context when Forward Thrust rail failed but most of the rest succeeded. We need visionaries like Jim Ellis to point the way and inspire people. We also need to realize that the WWII and post-WWII generation built our infrastructure and roads and bridges and hydro plants and water lines and sewers and colleges and libraries and parks, and the current generation is largely not maintaining them or for future generations. Instead they talk about tax cuts, and making sure no undeserving person gets any benefits, and they build throwaway structures that won’t last a generation and people will be tired of them long before then anyway. Long live Jim Ellis and the visionaries.

    2. Fixed it for you: The silent generation gave us the likes of Jim Ellis. Today we get Teresa Mosqueda and Alex Hudson. Oh, how times have changed!

    3. Times haven’t changed that much. There were people like Eyman back in the day. Keep in mind that as great as Ellis was, many of his plans failed in the same way that some of Eyman’s ideas were successful.

      I would say the biggest difference is that it was common to have moderate Republicans who were environmentalists back then. People like Dan Evans and Joel Pritchard. It is hard to find Republicans like that anymore. Reagan (and Gingrich) changed everything.

      1. “There were people like Eyman back in the day.”

        They didn’t have enough influence to affect state policies or initiative outcomes. Or at least not outside the South. The first post-WWII tax revolt I’m aware of is California’s Prop 13 in 1979. Reaganism built on that, and then Eyman built on Reaganism. Forward Thrust predated all of these, so it was in an environment where its approval was easier.

        The book “Nixonland” traces the rise and fall of Nixon from the 40s through the 70s and shows where movement conservatism and the anti-liberal grudge came from. (It goes back further than that, to the social structure in the slavery south.)

        The moderate environmentalist Republicans were part of that post-WWII movement of cooperation. The split of extremist Republicans who eventually took over the party, well, Nixon was one catalyst, even in college has had a grudge against the upper-class “liberal elites” who looked down on him, and that became a lifetime motivation. Reagan was moderate at first but became anti-union under the influence of General Electric’s leader if I remember. Gingrich, well, I blame him for the strategy of obstructionism and “accuse your opponents of doing what you’re doing”. But that accusation strategy was also used by Nixon and Cheney. Then there’s the civil rights legislation in the 1950s which really realigned the parties. But if I had to choose one person who most started the polarization, it would be Nixon.

    4. Thank you for your comment Bryan! Thank God Eyeman the alleged chair theif from Office Depot was not alive, please vote no on I 976……

  2. Great quote from his wife I just read … Gov asks Ellis to get involved with the the convention center. Ellis says he can’t, he’s taking care of his sick wife. His wife overhears this conversation, and says, “You can’t resign from the human race just because I’m sick.” So not only a great man, but a great wife.

  3. For generations and individuals, silence has its place. And also, when holding hands with fear, its price. Any chance the Washington State Supreme Court will notice-796 has more than one subject?

    And if that’s the case, any chance that Governor Inslee and the Democrats in the Washington State Legislature will have learned the lesson of I-695 and refuse, this time, to enact it into law?

    Being only human, natural that Jim Ellis finished his life with some regrets about the transit Atlanta built and we didn’t. But being privileged to work alongside him on the course we were forced to take, I saw hundreds of transit workers shape the results into the system we have got- and have not really even yet begun to build and operate.

    From what I’m seeing, and hearing, and meeting of people whose first election will be this coming November, I’m sensing no lifelong silence problem. When they hit their political peak, Tim will belong to not only the ages but these kids’ back pages.

    Mark Dublin

  4. Feeling as I do that Jim Ellis’s life and work deserve more than five comments, let me add what I see as the main point for my readership tonight. In addition to his gifts in law and acquisition, the man served as the guiding spirit of a regional railroad started from behind the steering wheels of buses.

    Like most of the face of the Earth, Atlanta is not only relatively flat compared to Seattle, but also crossed with existing railroad spurs and other rights of way whose history left them curved and graded for trains.

    After digging the Downtown subway that any system would’ve demanded because of our lack of street-space, we had to find vehicles that would, on the same run, operate in both our underground tunnel and all varieties of streets and highways.

    Without Jim and the spirit he created, our system would’ve spent another decade or two existing only as colored lines and dots on flip-charts.

    Now, nobody can be any harder than me on the attention our system did not get during our rubber-tired years by way of equipment, organization, and worker training. Which is why I’m deliberately concentrating these remarks on the character and ability of the people who managed to create a first-rate transit system with so much emptiness for guidance.

    Reason I’m not dealing in recriminations is that with the State of our country’s Union at this writing, nobody can say how long it’ll take to get any serious endeavor accomplished at all. Let alone done right.

    And reason I keep asking for comments from workers actually driving the vehicles, and operating the signals, and taking care of the passengers, is that it’s these levels that can hold our service together UNTIL it can be gotten workably together at the top.

    Not to slight the importance of land-use and taxation. But for the definition of “vision” our regional system needs at this point in history, I’d like to see a lot more literally composed behind the train-controller or steering wheel, with the send-key hit first minute off duty.

    Mark Dublin

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