Did You Hear the One About the Ballard-West Seattle Connection?

One mayoral hopeful is floating a monorail idea in a new vessel: light rail.

Norman Sigler has 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 to have the city contract with Sound Transit to build a light-rail line from Ballard to West Seattle. This would essentially do what the monorail would have done, 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 [situations]—the city's not going to solve all of its problems all by itself." Assuming the city could come up with the money (perhaps with federal help), 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 includes 18 members and largely comprises 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 constituents on transportation projects that meet certain criteria. 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," he claims. "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." Furthermore, he speculates that Sound Transit 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," Schiendelman adds. Remember 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 recommends 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." But the best part of the discussion about a hypothetical West Seattle-to-Ballard line: project managers. To hear Schiendelman tell it, it'd be like Ocean's Eleven. When construction of the new lines begins, he says, "They'll need the most badass project managers in the world—three, maybe four of them. 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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