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.