Transportation levy would be biggest ever

When elected leaders in Seattle wrote a plan to rescue the city's most neglected streets and bridges, they didn't stop there.

Voters are being asked to approve the largest property-tax levy in city history to support a broad package, known as Bridging the Gap, that devotes a full half of its $544 million to other things: bike lanes, sidewalks, road signs, traffic lights, buses, street trees, stairways, neighborhood traffic circles, and even some basic maintenance the city says it can't otherwise afford.

Mayor Greg Nickels insists the city should seize this chance to improve its roads and invest in pedestrian safety.

The levy is projected to cost $36 per $100,000 of assessed value next year, or $144 on a $400,000 house. That would be on top of $3,850 in existing property taxes for that $400,000 house for the city, county, Port of Seattle and school district. The levy portion would generate $361 million over nine years to supplement a parking tax and business tax already scheduled to start next year.

The city promises the new money would trim the backlog of substandard arterial streets and bridges by half, and add, for instance, four miles of bike trails in Ballard and Beacon Hill.

Opponents in the low-key campaign call the plan excessive.

None of the property tax would be spent to rebuild the worst bridges or pay for four of the largest projects in the package. All of those projects would be funded by bonds, which would be repaid with the parking and business taxes.

However, if voters on Nov. 7 reject Proposition 1, the entire plan would likely be disrupted.

Vague work plan

It's difficult to predict exactly what voters would get, because there's no definite timetable.

By contrast, recent measures for schools, parks and libraries came with very detailed commitments, so the public could judge what a new tax was expected to buy and then measure success when a Central Library, a new Roosevelt High School or the restoration of Schmitz Creek got done.

Streets are different, said Michael Mann, infrastructure adviser to Nickels. If the pavement suddenly collapses on a busy thoroughfare, that spot might get fixed sooner than something else on a list, he said.

Proposition 1 includes some taxpayer safeguards. Two-thirds of the levy money must go to maintenance, broadly defined to include safety projects, signals, trees and sidewalks, while the rest would go for transit, bikes and pedestrians. Levy funds may not be used to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has published a list of its dozen worst bridges, and a long-term street-improvement plan. Managers believe three to five of the weakest bridges would be rebuilt over nine years. Top priorities are the Northeast 45th Street Viaduct near University Village, the 15th Avenue Northeast bridge near Northgate, and Airport Way South over the Argo Railyard in Georgetown, said spokesman Gregg Hirakawa.

"The city knows what needs to be done," said campaign manager Andrew Glass Hastings.

Bottom line: The city is seeking a general increase in the transportation budget, and for voters to trust that SDOT will get its projects done sooner.

A planned replacement for the Magnolia Bridge is not part of the package and awaits other funding.

The three new Bridging the Gap taxes would generate $51 million in 2008, a boost of roughly one-third over the current transportation budget of $144 million.

More bike lanes

A city advisory panel and the mayor early on envisioned some trails and pedestrian-safety improvements as part of Bridging the Gap, but over the summer, the City Council nearly doubled funding in the bike category to $3.5 million a year, a move that encouraged the powerful Cascade Bicycle Club to endorse the levy.

Cycling projects would be determined based on a new Bicycle Master Plan due next year. Priorities would include a connection from a Sodo trail to Beacon Hill's 3.6-mile Chief Sealth Trail. Cascade Club director Chuck Ayers also expects the city to try shared bus/bike lanes in its proposed "bus-rapid-transit" corridors, such as Southwest Avalon Way in West Seattle. He said bikes already are mixing well with buses that are running on Third Avenue during renovations to the downtown transit tunnel.

Many projects in Bridging the Gap won't be determined until the city, advocacy groups and others decide where to spend the money:

• The Neighborhood Street Fund would get $1.5 million in the first year for non-arterial side streets and traffic calming, and more each year after that.

• King County Metro would be paid $1.5 million a year to provide additional Seattle bus service. That arrangement hinges on a separate King County sales-tax measure this year, Proposition 2, known as "Transit Now." Seattle's levy money would likely prompt Metro to boost the city's share of the Transit Now plan.

The city also would renovate major roads to work better as bus lanes, in corridors such as Greenwood Avenue North and Aurora Avenue North.

• The plan includes four megaprojects: converting Mercer Street into an attractive two-way boulevard; expanding King Street Station; building an overpass above train tracks at South Lander Street in Sodo; and widening the congested South Spokane Street Viaduct.

But the plan raises only $93 million of the $368 million to finish all four. So Seattle would need grants from other sources, including a proposed regional highway-tax measure next year. Mann said it's wise for the city to partially fund the big projects, because the city could then leverage that money to attract state and federal grants.

SDOT director Grace Crunican said the city already has a state commitment to assure one crucial phase of the Spokane Street project: new exit lanes for buses and general traffic at Fourth Avenue South, to provide a detour before the viaduct is closed for replacement.

Simple majority

For decades, the city focused its money on popular causes such as libraries, parks or homeless aid instead of patching streets, said Councilwoman Jean Godden. Gas-tax proceeds have slipped compared to inflation, and three years ago Tim Eyman's Initiative 776 eliminated $5.4 million in annual car-tab tax. A windfall in real-estate excise tax helped cushion the blow.

Mann says the city can't shift more of its general-fund money into transportation without taking from police, libraries or social services.

The city tried a bond measure for streets in 1997, but it just missed the needed 60 percent threshold.

This time around, only a 50 percent majority is needed; the property tax would be spent mostly on relatively simple pay-as-you-go jobs, while other taxes support the bonds for big projects.

On the other hand, voters must consider whether this levy, plus three other transportation-tax measures in 2006 and 2007, will push them to their limit.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or