Does Roderick’s 10,000-Foot Rail Plan Have Wings?

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City council candidate John Roderick, one of two leading contenders to take on council member Tim Burgess in citywide Position 8 in the November general election (the other is tenants advocate Jon Grant), recently unveiled a centerpiece of his transportation plan.

No, not funiculars or gondolas or any of the other far-fetched (supporters would say far-sighted) ideas you’ll hear him expound about at forums. What Roderick, along with Alon Bassok, a less-viable candidate in the other citywide position, is proposing is something he calls “neighborhood rail.” The idea is to build a system of short-line rail connections between neighborhoods in the north, south, and west sectors of Seattle that operate largely independent of each other and would connect over water crossings with existing bus lines. The streetcars would not cross the ship canal, saving enough money in bridge and tunnel construction to bring the price down, in Roderick and Bassock’s estimation, to $1 billion for 75 to 100 miles of streetcar rail. After the system is built, ongoing maintenance would be funded by an employee hours tax, known derisively as a head tax.

The idea would be to supplement regional systems like Sound Transit with a city-only rail system that serves “people who live and work in our great city,” according to the text of the proposal—emphasis on and. “This would be a transit network for people who live in the city,” Roderick says, and it would be paid for entirely by city dwellers. The idea is similar in principle to former mayor Mike McGinn’s  plan to build a go-it-alone rail system, which would also have been funded by city-only taxes. That shouldn’t be too surprising—Roderick says McGinn, who has endorsed him, was one of his advisors on the plan.

After looking over the three-page, 10,000-foot-level proposal, I had so, so many questions. Among them: Was $1 billion just a nice, round number, or does Roderick think the city can actually build 100 miles of rail for $10 million a mile? Does he consider regionalism a bad thing? Is this proposal, which would require a significant increase in property taxes (Roderick and Bassock estimate around $200 per year for the average household), a whack at Mayor Ed Murray’s $930 million Move Seattle property tax proposal? And how the hell does he expect to afford the kind of right-of-way that would be necessary to give each streetcar “its own lane, priority at traffic signals, and … complete separat[ion] from traffic”?

First of all, to answer the question I’ve heard come up most often: No, Roderick’s rail plan wouldn’t replace Move Seattle, and Roderick says he is not opposed to the mayor’s levy. Instead, Roderick says, it would help shore up a proposal full of “piecemeal fixes” plan that he says fails to “address this aspect of what is going to be a comprehensive redesign of a lot of our public spaces and roads. … To build all that stuff [in Move Seattle] and to not have a rail component, and then to come back later and redo it all, is going to be not just incredibly expensive but crazy.”Screen shot 2015-05-29 at 3.51.26 PM

And speaking of incredibly expensive: Where did that nice, round $10 million-per-mile dollar figure come from? It’s an estimate that seems especially implausible in the context of the streetcars we’ve already built or are in the process of building, on First Hill and in South Lake Union. Those lines cost between $30 million and $40 million per mile, on relatively flat land; given those demonstrably higher costs on the ground, it’s tough to see how Roderick could slash per-mile prices up to 75 percent.

To Roderick, though, his proposed streetcar lines (none of which are mapped out in the plan, making it hard to judge the potential lines on their merits) bear few similarities to the ones in South Lake Union and First Hill. “I think the mistake that we make is looking at the cost per mile of the South Lake Union streetcar, or First Hill, and figuring that’s what it costs per mile to build streetcars in Seattle,” Roderick says. “The reality is that when they were building the South Lake Union streetcar, they were also rebuilding all the sidewalks and drainage. It was a comprehensive rebuild of the whole neighborhood, and a lot of that got attached to the cost of building the streetcar cost per mile. In fact, that isn’t reflective of what it costs to lay down rail, and you don’t to rebuild the sidewalks all the way through.” You do, however, have to figure out a way to access places like Queen Anne where regular streetcars don’t go, and areas like Fremont that have extremely complex existing street grids that tend to fail when the bridge is up.

“We’ve learned a lot from building those two trains, and a lot about what not to do—in particular, that intermingling those trains with traffic doesn’t make sense.”

But separating the trains from traffic in dedicated lanes, like the portion of light rail along Martin Luther King in Southeast Seattle, also adds costs, and will be political kryptonite to the large and vocal subset of voters who believe transit-versus-cars is a zero-sum proposition. Although Roderick is characteristically blithe about the inevitable protests—”Traffic on 45th is not going to get better by not building a train”—those protesters are going to matter if his streetcar plan goes to a vote.

Read the rest of this post at Seattle Transit Blog, and check out an outtake for political junkies after the jump.

Near the end of our conversation, I asked Roderick what I considered a fairly innocuous question about how closely he had worked with McGinn on his transportation plan. Without prompting, Roderick immediately asserted his independence from the former mayor.  “As you know, McGinn is quietly advising my campaign.” (His campaign consultants and former advisors have also reconvened around Roderick). “He’s not determining [the course of] it, or pulling the strings like [I’m] a puppet, or coming in with his own ax to grind and putting me out as a proxy in some personal battle against Murray,” he said.

To paraphrase Bob Woodward, I never asked about Watergate.

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