EVERYBODY BITCHES ABOUT traffic. So what are the City Council candidates going to do about it? With Sound Transit in disarray, the Monorail languishing, and traffic "choke points" starting to gag, transportation policy could be one of the most important factors determining your vote.
The candidates' suggestions for dealing with the problem mostly focus on stuff like bike lanes and improving public transit. Nobody's calling for a lot of road and highway expansion. In the council candidate world, the single-occupancy car driver is largely autopersona non grata.
Some of the candidates have pretty detailed proposals, while others seem to have only vague notions of what they want. "I am so tired of traffic and parking!" exclaims Judy Nicastro (position 1), who expresses an interest in everything from a Sound Transit light rail line to Northgate to some sort of in-city trolley cars to "a comprehensive bike lane system." She points out that riding a bike through the Arboretum, for instance, "is very dangerous." (Memo to Judy: People have been trying to overhaul the Arboretum since before you were born.)
Nicastro believes the city is dragging its feet on the Monorail. "Voters supported it," she says, "elected officials have a duty and obligation to honor it." (Though she concedes, "If we start going into neighborhoods, people aren't going to be happy.") She would like to put a funding plan to a public vote. By contrast, Heidi Wills (position 7) is only lukewarm on the Monorail. "I'm open to looking at it if it complements Sound Transit and doesn't require public funding," she says.
A more original idea comes from Dawn Mason (position 9), who proposes giving over an entire lane on major arterials to buses during rush hour. "My mantra is 'Let the buses through,'" she says. Mason believes that if the city opens up bus-only thoroughfares, Metro will be more willing to add extra service. Metro spokesperson Dan Williams agrees, "If our buses could move through traffic easily and reliably, it would free up money for more service."
But Williams says there are no guarantees as to where and how that money would be spent. And unless there's a major increase in service, it would seem like a terrific waste to give over a major arterial lane to a bus that goes by once every ten minutes. Also, stripping away half the car-carrying capacity of, say, 23rd Ave E or NE 45th Street is not exactly going to improve congestion.
What about discount bus passes for everyone in the city? That's an idea being proposed by Dan Norton (position 1). As an instructor at Seattle Central Community College, Norton gets to have a monthly bus pass for only ten bucks (thanks to a cost-sharing deal between Metro and the college). He wants to see this program expanded—and mandatory—for everyone in the city, with each household getting a $10 bus pass tax on their utility bill.
Norton acknowledges, "There's some question whether we can do that." Glen Lee of the city budget office says some legal research would be required to determine whether the city had the authority to levy such a tax; the state keeps a tight reign on the city's revenue-raising ability.
Norton's notion of making cheap bus passes widely available is certainly one of the best transportation ideas offered by any of the candidates. With Metro buses currently running, on average, just over half full during rush hour, the best thing we could do for congestion is make riding those buses more attractive. (And raising the bus fare, as King County did last year, does not qualify). On the other hand, Dick Nelson, a transportation consultant and former state legislator, thinks Norton's idea is a little too broad-brush. "It may just increase trips that are excursions," he says, "but might not move people from cars to buses." He thinks targeting the discounts to specific riders makes more sense.
No one is trying to get more political mileage out of transportation than Alec Fisken (position 9). He's made traffic anxiety a centerpiece of his campaign, sending out a slick five-page mailer with the headline "It's not the rain that's driving people crazy. . . . It's the traffic!" He calls traffic "the single biggest threat to Seattle's quality of life. It worsens the air, ruins neighborhoods, and will eventually affect the economy," he says.
Fisken says, "We should start off with the idea that Seattle is eventually going to be a city where people get around without a car. We need to agree to that and then say, 'What's the first step?'"
For Fisken, the first step is implementing the Transportation Strategic Plan, a 150-page list of ideas that was adopted by the City Council last October—and has been gathering dust ever since. The plan includes dozens of strategies, from the low-cost to the elaborate, such as allowing buses to trigger green lights at intersections, requiring employers to offer their workers cash in place of a free parking space, and setting up more taxi stands. "Those recommendations are concrete and ready to go," says Fisken, "and would make a significant difference." He thinks the plan would cost somewhere in the "hundreds of millions."
Whether or not the city can come up with the money to cover all those proposals, there's no doubt that Fisken's focus on these unglamorous but potentially very effective transportation proposals makes him the top candidate for everyone who's worried about traffic and doesn't mind yielding to buses once in a while.