Sigler Suggests Seattle-Funded, Sound Transit-Built Westside Rail Line: How Feasible Is It?

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Norman Sigler's proposed a lot of things in his mayoral campaign--for example, sending a Seattle delegation on goodwill trips to North Korea, or funding group housing for artists and musicians. But one proposal he says has been particularly well-received is having the city contract with Sound Transit to build a light-rail line from Ballard to West Seattle.

This would essentially give us what the monorail would have, and could connect to the existing light rail lines running through downtown. "I was amazed at the response I got," says Sigler. The city would come up with the money--he threw out an estimate of $5 billion--and have Sound Transit build it. "They're the ones with the expertise," he explains. "It's about forming partnerships and win/win--the city's not going to solve all of its problems all by itself."

Assuming the city (perhaps with Federal help) could come up with the money, how feasible is the idea?

Sound Transit spokesperson Geoff Patrick is circumspect. "To my knowledge, we haven't reviewed any type of specific proposal," he says. "I want to hesitate to get too speculative. But any proposal would have to be taken up by our board," which is 18 members and is comprised of elected officials in the three counties, " and it would require a lot of due diligence in light of our enabling legislation." That legislation, passed in the 1990s, gave Sound Transit the right to propose taxes to its its constituents on transportation projects that meet certain criteria.

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Ben Schiendelman writes for Seattle Transit Blog and also worked on last year's Sound Transit measure. He calls Sigler's proposal "a great idea" and notes that it's been around for a while. "I've actually been working toward it myself. But there are some big problems with doing it right now. The first step, other than gathering popular support, is going to the legislature. We'd have to, because we don't have the revenue service" to fund it ourselves and he speculates that we wouldn't be able to score one of the federal New Starts grants intended for new mass transit projects--as the line would probably lack the required initial ridership and might by then already be served by a downtown-to-Ballard streetcar.

"Basically, we need a new MVET (motor vehicle excise tax), but [Senate Transportation Committee Chair] Mary Margaret Haugen has made it clear that she wants that money to be used for road fixes." You may recall the Governor's veto of legislation that would enable King County to tax itself to raise money for Metro. That veto came at Haugen's request.

Schiendelman suggests instead going to the City Council in 2010 and suggesting it pay the $12 million for the study that Sound Transit isn't supposed to do until 2015. "If they did it right away, not only would it save Sound Transit money--which they could use to pay off bonds or fund bus service--but it would accelerate the project. Nevertheless, looking into his crystal ball (or giving his best guess), he sees a Westside rail measure happening in 2012 at the earliest and maybe requiring two votes--one to get it to Interbay, another to Ballard, which by then might already be served by a streetcar line. Of course, there's also the issue of drumming up public support for an expensive project, something that will probably be easier once the Capitol Hill and University light rail stations open, as those will carry a lot more passengers than the South end ones and give a better feel for the potential of the system.

Y'all do light rail?

So conceivable and perhaps feasible, but probably not soon. But the best part of the discussion about a hypothetical West Seattle-to-Ballard line? Project Managers. To hear Schiendelman tell it, they're like Ocean's 11. When construction of the new lines begins, "They'll need the most badass project managers in the world--three, maybe four of them." That would make one for each line--South, North, East, and West--if it happens. "It'll be really hard. There are just very few people in the world who know how to build a mass transit system." How few? "Maybe only a dozen."

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