The Asphalt Jumble: Rice's Levy For Streets

Let me get this straight.

Seattle Mayor Norm Rice wants voters to approve a $90 million bond levy to pay for street repairs and improvements.

"I have believed all along," Rice said, "that the people of Seattle are willing to pay for services that are important to them, and improving the condition of our roads is clearly among their highest priorities."

Stop right there for a second and examine that statement clause by clause:

1: "I have believed . . ."

You know you're in trouble right away when a politician opens up a campaign this way. You also know the campaign's in trouble.

2: ". . . all along . . ."

This one I don't get at all. All along what? The watchtower? His tenure as mayor? Some period of special travail? The period in which the people were willing to pay but for some reason were unable, or went unasked? The period in which they were willing to pay but no one was willing to collect the money?

3: ". . . that the people of Seattle are willing to pay for services that are important to them . . ."

Me, too.

I fervently believe that people want to raise their taxes, but at various times in my life, I have also believed in the Easter Bunny, Milli Vanilli and the Mariner bullpen. In other words, belief is an exercise fraught with unpleasant surprise.

4: ". . . and improving the condition of our roads . . ."

Actually, only about 60 percent of the $90 million would go to streets. The rest would pay for such various and very Seattle purposes as traffic calming - which is to say, slowing down the cars that will, once the bond issue is approved, be able to go faster because the streets will have fewer holes in them.

Still, that leaves $54 million for streets. Surely, $54 million will make the streets smooth as Velveeta. Right?

Well, not entirely. It's a six-year levy. That's $9 million a year. The city has 3,666 miles of streets. That works out to $2,500 per year per mile.

The city last year spent $2.6 million fixing 2.8 miles of bike and running path around Green Lake. It's a very nice path, thick enough to bury Jimmy Hoffa under, but even without all the doodads that boosted its price, you can see that a million dollars doesn't get you much anymore.

If the Green Lake path costs a million dollars a mile, what will $2,500 get us? New lane stripes?

5: ". . . is clearly among their highest priorities."

This is the real sticking point in The Mayor's proposal.

Everybody I mention this bond levy to has an almost identical reaction: Why do we need a special levy to do something as elementary as fix the streets? Whattaya mean, it's optional? Is this cable television and is street repair a premium channel?

Isn't this like a school asking for extra money to pay teachers? If fixing roads isn't a basic service of local government, what is?

The city budget this year is $1.8 billion. The general-fund portion of that - the part over which the city has most discretion - is about $463 million. You would think, wouldn't you, that $463 million would at the least get you some halfway decent roads.

What do we pay our taxes for, anyhow?

Now that's a good question.

While I've been sitting here typing, several thousand Seattle city employees were attending something called the "All City Shareholders' Meeting." This was billed by city officials as an attempt to get all city employees reading from the same page, which is an admirable enough goal. Private companies do stuff like this all the time, but it strikes me as management guru fad of the month.

Advance materials said the meeting would be presided over by a stand-up comedian and would include a presentation by The Mayor "acknowledging where the City's been and where we are now . . ."

Now that's enough to make you want to open your wallet, isn't it?

You figure a few thousand employees at a minimum pay of $35 an hour and pretty soon you're talking about spending real money, maybe enough to fix a couple miles' worth of potholes.

Terry McDermott's column appears Tuesday and Thursday. His phone message number is 515-5055. His e-mail address is: