Walk, Bike, Ride yes. Spend? Um, er…

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Where’s the money, Lebowski?

The opening line from “The Big Lebowski” kept rolling through my mind as Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, King County Council member Larry Phillips and a supporting cast of street activists rolled out a new “Walk Bike Ride” campaign at the Beacon Hill light rail station this afternoon.

It’s an impressive initiative to get people out of cars and into their neighborhoods, stores and workplaces by transit, bike and foot. It calls for things like a “street diet” for Nickerson (removing lanes of cars to prioritize bikes and pedestrians), expanding light rail to Ballard and/or West Seattle, and making unsafe roads and intersections pedestrian-friendly, crosswalk by bike lane by traffic light.

A new Transit Master Plan will be devised, initiated with a public forum on May 26th at Yesler Community Center and bolstered with community meetings June 1, 7, 14 and 21 around Seattle.

All this, without any dollar sign attached.

Normally a big press announcement like this ballyhooing a major city-county initiative has lots of numbers attached to it. But despite repeated questioning from a somewhat bewildered press corps, McGinn et al refused to assign price tags or say what funding sources potentially exist.

So why were we all here?

The more the mayor talked, the clearer it became that the entire shindig was aimed at getting people to, in Steve Jobs’ immortal slogan, “Think Different.” The word “prioritizing” kept popping up. If we really care about our future, and our kids’ future, do we want to be spending billions on highways for cars? Or do we want to start reassigning critical funds to things like sidewalks, bike lanes, safer intersections, calmer thoroughfares and people-moving systems?

Because we can’t have both.

Seattle is changing. It’s dawning on commuters that it really does cost $9,500 a year to drive a family car 15,000 miles. That 20 to 25 percent of their annual family budget really does go to gas and wheels and parking and maintenance (mostly for commuting), a percentage second only to their mortgage. That riding a bus or train to work makes a whole lot more sense financially, for them and the city, than driving and parking and paying.

And that, according to the National Personal Transportation Survey, “25 percent of all trips are made within a mile of the home, 40 percent of all trips are within two miles of the home, and 50 percent of the working population commutes five miles or less to work. Yet more than 82 percent of trips five miles or less are made by personal motor vehicle.”

Seattle is facing $8 billion on highway projects, but somehow $30 million (or whatever; the figure has been cited but was not specified at the press conference) to improve streets for people is an impossible number in these trying economic times.

If the $4B-plus Deep Bore Tunnel and the $300M West Mercer Project and the $300M Seawall all get built, the mayor implied, there won’t be scat left over for streets.

“The really really big one here is cost overruns on the tunnel,” McGinn said. “If we find ourselves down the road having to pay out of pocket, it will crowd out funding not only for other transportation projects in the budget but will affect our entire city budget in really drastic, negative ways.

“In the long term, we could be in a situation like Boston, where they finance current operations out of debt because of cost overruns on the Big Dig.”

So a grim game of fiscal brinksmanship is going on between the mayor and the progressive transportation interests supporting him — and the highway lobby, with the governor, the City Council and downtown money interests supporting them.

It’s going to be an uphill battle to get the City Council to change its vote on the tunnel, or the governor to seriously address cost overruns, or downtown Seattle interests to take pedestrian safety and bike lanes and rail expansion seriously. Highway projects get supported by Big Money precisely because they require Big Money to build.

In a way, McGinn faces the same challenges as President Obama with everything from health reform to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. For Obama, entrenched interests of Old America won’t budge off the dime to acknowledge and accommodate New America. But both understand you have to be patient to get change, even if you take criticism from people who voted for you over not doing enough, quickly enough.

“It’s premature to talk about funding,” McGinn said. This fall’s budget proposal, his first as mayor, will have real numbers, he promised.

But without real change in the public’s priorities — meaning how taxpayer dollars are spent for transportation — those numbers won’t be impressive.

What can we as citizens do to change the minds of people we otherwise support — like the governor, like the City Council, and even our neighbors and community leaders? Groups including Streets for All Seattle and Cascade Bicycle Club and People’s Waterfront Coalition and others say they will continue to work with vested interests.

But the crucial thing is to change the dialogue from highways to streets, from multi-billion-dollar mega-projects to bike lanes and crosswalks and buses and rail.

The mayor knows about uphill battles. As if to set an example, he walked, biked and rode yesterday, taking his bike on light rail to Beacon Hill, walking it to the press conference, and then riding back to City Hall.

Dressed in a spiffy black business suit, he can be forgiven for not cycling to the event.

But “going back to City Hall, it’s all downhill,” he said with a grin.

Literally, yes. Figuratively, no way.

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4 thoughts on “Walk, Bike, Ride yes. Spend? Um, er…”

  1. I not one to be confused about Seattle’s transportation politics but I’m completely lost when it comes to the Streets for all Seattle and Walk, Bike, Ride. I’ll give the mayor the benifit of the doubt to right now all it looks like he is doing is trying to double count projects that have already been in the world for years. I think the mayor sees everything related to transportation in the lens of the deep bore tunnel. If he stops that project he sees ~4.5 billion freed up for other transportation projects. I think it is a bit optimisitic to say that the state is just going to reprogram that money into what the city wants but Mayor Nickels and Ron Sims basically screwed us when it comes to that.

  2. Nice post, Paul.
    I like your Steve Jobs reference. Yes, getting people to “think different” is key. And maybe saying it over and over and over and setting an example by riding bikes and taking buses and light rail is the most effective way for McGinn to get people to think different.

  3. Getting car and industrial/truck traffic off the surface streets and into a tunnel under the city is very pro bicyclist. When surface streets are packed with cars, buses and trucks simply trying to pass through our city then it is not safe for us bicyclists! The tunnel will allow a large volume of cars trucks and buses to bypass the city core. If Seattle reduces the volume of traffic on surface streets then it is possible to dedicate more lane space for bicycles! We must continue to reduce the number of cars and industrial traffic in downtown Seattle and the surrounding neighborhoods.

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