The Seattle political establishment was shocked by the failure of Mayor Greg Nickels to make it past primary elections in August. Mr. Nickels faced strong competition on both his right and left, from executive Joe Mallahan, who promoted an efficient, business-friendly platform, and from environmentalist Mike McGinn, who argued that the mayor hadn’t done enough to ready the city for a greener 21st century. The city’s inhabitants will vote again in early November to determine which of the two candidates will lead America’s 25th-largest city; their choice will be elemental in determining the municipality’s future transportation options.
At the national level, Mr. Nickels made a name for himself as a major proponent of transit investment. He campaigned relentlessly for the passage of Sound Transit 2 last fall, which provided several billion dollars of new funds for light rail expansion north to Lynnwood, east to Overlake, and south to Redondo. That said, he was a vigorous proponent of the four billion dollar Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, which is primarily an expenditure designed to improve the lives of automobile commuters.
It is increasingly apparent that Mr. McGinn, who has in the past favored cheaper bus service over rapid transit expansion, will also be a strong proponent of capital investment in mass transit if he is elected. He fought the costly and unnecessary replacement of the Viaduct with a new downtown tunnel. Mr. Mallahan, who drives almost everywhere, has provided little evidence that he feels similarly, and his strong support of the tunneling of the Viaduct, rather than its replacement with the surface-level boulevard Mr. McGinn suggests, augurs poorly for his ability to advocate for new transit solutions.
The mayoral contest is particularly relevant because of the recent decision of the Seattle City Council to pursue an agreement with regional authority Sound Transit on the First Hill Streetcar line. This project, which will be the second modern streetcar in the city (after the corridor in South Lake Union), will connect the International District downtown with First Hill and Capitol Hill, essentially providing a secondary parallel transit spine to the just-opened Link light rail line. It will be sponsored by Sound Transit, as it was one of the funded projects in Mr. Nickels’ ST2; in a complicated arrangement, the city will build and operate the line despite having limited financial involvement. When it opens in 2013, the First Hill line could be the second element of a whole network of streetcars running through the city’s core. It has yet to acquire a definitive route or an official name.
Perhaps the most admirable element of Mr. McGinn’s platform is his emphasis on preserving rights-of-way for transit; despite his support of the First Hill line, he is not focused on streetcars because he is concerned that they are simply too slow to replace a large share of car trips. He wants more rapid bus lines that travel in their own lanes. Instead of pushing for a streetcar line to West Seattle’s Queen Anne, Fremont, and Ballard neighborhoods, he wants a quick light rail line along the same route to be submitted for voter consideration in a couple of years. His platform, then, suggests a willingness to continue the investments Mr. Nickels prioritized and an excitement to go further towards making the city great.
Mr. McGinn understands that a simple streetcar line isn’t enough to ensure efficient and trustworthy public transportation options for the city’s voters, but he also has made apparent his understanding that streetcars can be powerful tools for the development of dense urban environments. His opposition to the Viaduct makes his credentials as a transit advocate all the more obvious. He would be an intelligent steward of the city’s funds and a visionary for the region’s future.
Image above: Proposed First Hill Streetcar Route, from Seattle Department of Transportation