Urban Politics #270: Sausage Making & Streetcars


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

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We’ve all heard how making legislation is like making sausage; you don’t want to see it being made. The Council’s Full Council streetcar vote on Monday was a day at the sausage factory. For those intrigued by how legislation gets made, read on, for those who just as soon not know, stop here and enjoy the rest of your day.

PROLOGUE

I’ve written about the proposed city streetcar network twice before in Urban Politics, most recently on 12/7/2008 in Urban Politics # 269.

My basic view on streetcars is that while they are appropriate for dense urban centers, their dramatically higher capital and operating costs necessitate a close scrutiny of whether they fit the need for any particular setting, so that they do not siphon away funds from the much more readily available and used bus system. The City Council hired Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates who produced a report “Transit Mode Analysis” in August of this year, basically saying the same thing. The Council responded by passing an Ordinance # 122627, that we approve a Seattle Streetcar Network Concept Work Program and then specified 14 tasks to be performed in it.

ORDERING THE SAUSAGE

Councilmember Jan Drago, being the strongest proponent of developing a city wide streetcar network, drew up Resolution # 31091. Stating the City Council’s support for developing a streetcar network in the City of Seattle and identifying the most promising streetcar routes for the City to pursue. There was an Attachment A, which revealed four new potential streetcar lines. The legislation prioritized the Central and the First Hill lines for receiving any capital funding.

I opposed the legislation since the Council had not received all of the information we had requested from our Department of Transportation as outlined in our previous Ordinance # 122627. All the evidence to date did not support endorsing any further work promoting streetcars. I then introduced Resolution # 31101 stating the City Council’s intent to not support the development of a Seattle Streetcar Network at this time, with the exception of allowing Sound Transit to build and operate the First Hill line, which they had agreed to do. Councilmember Tom Rasmussen joined me as a Co-Sponsor.

So Drago and Licata each ordered sausage. Her order went to her Transportation Committee and mine went directly to the Full Council due to the timing when each was introduced to the Council’s procedural calendar. By prior agreement between the two sausage makers, both were to come before the Full Council on the same date, so all the Councilmembers could grind away on both at the same time.

TRANSPORTATION COMMITTEE PREP SHOP

On Tuesday December 2 the Council’s Transportation Committee met. There are three regular members on the Committee, Drago, Sally Clark and Richard McIver. As is the case with issues that are controversial, and Councilmembers want to make sure their choice bits of meat or organs are included in the sausage, other Councilmembers can show up, participate and vote on the legislation. I showed up and so did Councilmembers Tim Burgess and Jean Godden.

The first thing I usually do in these situations is try to figure out where the votes might go based on previous conversations. Godden and Burgess had been supportive of streetcars so I expected them to vote for Jan’s resolution. I wasn’t sure of Clark; she was weighing both sides. McIver had been critical of streetcars in general, but he had voted in favor of the South Lake Union streetcar, so I wasn’t sure of where he would land. As it turned out the vote came out 4 to 2, with only McIver and I opposing the legislation.

THE FULL COUNCIL SAUSAGE FACTORY

Drago’s resolution and mine were to come before the Full Council on Monday, December 8th. The day before I emailed out Urban Politics # 269 explaining my position. I received about fifty responses, 90% of them supporting my opposition to Drago’s legislation.

Drago had predicted a six to three vote supporting her resolution. I thought that might be if Conlin and Harrell, who had not previously voted, threw their support her way. Conlin had been a strong supporter of the South Lake Union streetcar and he remained supportive of them as a transportation mode. I wasn’t sure where Harrell was. He expressed doubts about Drago’s legislation and mine as well.

It looked like five solid votes for Drago’s legislation, with at least Conlin adding his vote to the four who had previously supported it in the Transportation Committee.

Drago’s resolution had no conditions attached to it. In other words, it was pretty much a full out endorsement to proceed with a city wide streetcar network. Time for making that sausage.

I had drawn up some amendments to Drago’s legislation in case my resolution failed and hers proceeded to a vote, as mine came up first for a vote on the agenda. The amendments were largely a recapitulation of the required information from Ordinance # 122627, and would need to be received before the Council would consider spending any money on the network, other than what was needed to collect the information.

I was facing a nasty choice. I would have preferred to just vote against the Drago legislation. But then again the sausage coming out of the factory would not have been edible. And I wanted Drago’s resolution to have the Council clearly go on record that they would not proceed until a number of conditions were met, two of the most important being a clear demonstration of secured or committed funding and a written agreement between Metro Transit and the City on what the impacts to our bus service would be.

As I walked the halls with the amendments I found that I could garner the support needed to have them successfully attached to Drago’s legislation if I supported the amended version. Knowing that it would pass without my vote, I made the decision that it was better to have the conditions added as a way of stopping any further development of a streetcar network if necessary, rather than feeling good but not having a check on further developments.

My resolution came up first and I expected that I would have McIver and Rasmussen voting in favor of it. The tally found only Rasmussen and me wanting to stop further development of the streetcar network at this time. With McIver, Harrell and Conlin now voting not to halt the streetcar network, it looked like Drago’s legislation would easily pass, with or without my amendments.

Drago’s legislation came up next and I moved my amendments to require the Executive to do the following, before the Council would consider funding additional streetcar lines:

  1. Demonstrate that there is committed funding for construction, and a plan for operations that identifies and limits use of City funding;
  2. Show how a specific streetcar line or network would improve transit in the City, including measurable improvements toward meeting the City’s goal of service every 15 minutes, 18 hours a day, 7 days a week;
  3. Show how quality of service in a corridor or neighborhood would be impacted, including the increase or decrease in total transit service hours;
  4. Give written confirmation of an agreement between SDOT and Metro on assumptions made for any restructuring of bus service hours, including the specific bus routes, total number of hours, and financial value of bus service hours translated into streetcar hours.

In other words, the City would need to demonstrate that any new streetcar line would improve transit in Seattle in a cost-effective manner.

In an unexpected twist, Harrell and McIver voted against the amendments, but they passed 7 to 2. The vote on the amended Drago legislation then passed 6 to 3, with Rasmussen then joining Harrell and McIver in voting no.

SAUSAGE DONE

I remain skeptical that the case can be proven for additional streetcars, but because of my amendments the Council is now on record supporting a streetcar network, but with the caveat that it won’t provide funding until the case is proven. And the power of the purse is the fundamental power of the Council, so the statement of support has been heavily qualified. Now it will only take Council to exercise that authority when the appropriate times come.

And thus that is how this particular sausage got ground out.

(Below is further information on the amendments.)

BACKGROUND ON AMENDMNENTS

Service Hours and Operations

Metro operates the South Lake Union (SLU) Streetcar line, under an agreement with the City. The City receives 11,000 service hours; without the SLU Streetcar, Seattle would have received 16,500 bus hours, because streetcar operations are more expensive. That’s why I voted no on the operations agreement. By contrast, operations for the First Hill streetcar will be funded by Sound Transit, so there’s no cost to bus service hours.

The SLU Streetcar hours came from hours made available because of light rail replacing some Metro bus routes. The potential new streetcar lines run in areas well served by Metro buses. This means bus routes could change if streetcars are approved. SDOT believes this means bus route hours would be freed to service other areas, but Metro is skeptical about this, and stated some routes could be reduced and/or truncated, forcing bus riders in Ballard and Queen Anne to transfer to a streetcar (Metro also stated the First Hill streetcar would not allow them to redistribute existing bus service hours).

That’s why the amendments call for an explanation of the quality of service to a corridor or neighborhood. Will there be more or fewer hours of transit available? Will transfers be required? Will Belltown residents who use the Ride Free Zone have to pay to ride streetcars? We need to know.

Finances

No clear capital funding plan was provided by the Executive. About half the cost of the South Lake Union line was paid for by property owners, which is easier with one large property owner, Vulcan, which supported the project. The potential for property owners to pay half the project costs is not as clear for the proposed lines. We need to know how a line will be funded; Sound Transit is providing $120 million for a First Hill line. For other lines, there isn’t a plan.

Agreement with Metro

If Metro is to operate streetcars, we need confirmation on an agreement between SDOT and Metro regarding any service changes, including specifics about what routes, and the value of the bus hours, translated into streetcar hours.

SDOT argues that streetcars can be made less expensive to operate than buses. This isn’t the case with the SLU Streetcar; we need to see a plan and agreement with Metro that shows this to be true. How effective a streetcar network would be depends in large part on Metro.

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