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Originally published September 17, 2009 at 12:01 AM | Page modified September 24, 2009 at 4:42 PM

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McGinn wants light-rail line on Seattle's west side

Seattle mayoral candidate Mike McGinn promises to seek a public vote by 2011 on a new light-rail line for the western side of the city.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Seattle mayoral candidate Mike McGinn promises to seek a public vote by 2011 on a new light-rail line for the western side of the city — Ballard, Interbay, Queen Anne, Belltown, downtown, West Seattle, maybe Fremont, too.

His announcement Wednesday helps answer the question of how people could travel to and past downtown, if McGinn were to thwart the state's plan for a new Highway 99 tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

He gave no cost estimate, and said car-tab or sales taxes might be in the mix.

A west-side line should be similar in speed and capacity to the Sound Transit corridor in Southeast Seattle, McGinn said. Trains run in a median down Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and get signal priority through intersections, at up to 35 mph.

"If we have the will to support and vote for light rail, we could build it quickly and efficiently," McGinn said.

Mayoral candidate Joe Mallahan accused his opponent of making "off the cuff" proposals and of not being honest about project costs. Rather than seek a city vote, Mallahan said, he would try to expedite Sound Transit's own planning.

"How many large capital projects is he going to propose?" said Mallahan. "He's already talked about tearing down the viaduct on the city's dime and walking away from $2.4 billion in state funding [for a tunnel]. He's proposed a city Wi-Fi network we don't need."

Mallahan supports going ahead with a tunnel to replace the viaduct.

McGinn has said he is keeping taxpayers in mind by opposing the tunnel, which he says would likely bring huge cost overruns, as well as utility-relocation costs borne by the city.

A west-side light-rail corridor would be integrated, McGinn said, with Sound Transit's Link system, and the project done in cooperation with Sound Transit and King County Metro Transit.

McGinn offered few details, saying those would emerge from future public discussions.

"We're not sitting down to pull out a Magic Marker and draw lines on a map," he said at a news conference at the Columbia City light-rail station.


Sound Transit's own long-range plans show trains might loop through Ballard, Fremont and across Wallingford, linking to the light-rail mainline at the University District and Westlake Center.

But the agency wouldn't take a Ballard line to the ballot until perhaps 2016, as part of a measure that likely would include extensions to Everett, Tacoma, Redmond and maybe Issaquah.

"Under their long-term plans, it might take 20 or 30 years to serve more neighborhoods so that all our Seattle neighborhoods will get the benefit of good mass transit," McGinn said.

One way to fund a rail line could be to form a "transportation benefit district" as authorized by the Legislature, McGinn said.

With voter approval, state law allows a city district to enact a yearly car-tab fee of up to $100; sales taxes of two-tenths of 1 percent; or charge tolls on city arterials. Such a district could charge developer fees, or neighborhood-approved property taxes near the projects.

The city is eligible to form a district, and the law allows Seattle to transfer a new rail project to Sound Transit, a legislative staffer in Olympia said Wednesday.

A city light-rail project would be eligible to apply for Federal Transit Administration grants, an FTA spokesman said.

Costs are unknown but would surely run in the hundreds of millions, or more.

To hold costs down, Seattle should use existing right of way where possible, and not seek a "Cadillac" system, McGinn said.

He mentioned Portland's newest light-rail segment, the Green Line, which opened last weekend, as a good model. Eight new miles of new corridor were built for $576 million, in the east suburbs and near Portland State University downtown.

Sound Transit spent $208 million just for real estate on its new Seattle-Tukwila line, mainly to widen MLK Way, build stations, and site a maintenance base.

Another obstacle would be crossing the Duwamish River to West Seattle. "My guess is it would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, just for that bridge," said Vlad Oustimovich, a tunnel supporter. He was a West Seattle representative on the state's Viaduct-replacement stakeholders' committee last year.

If a west-side route sounds familiar, it should.

City voters in 2002 approved a car-tab tax to fund a proposed 14-mile, $1.75 billion monorail from Ballard to West Seattle. A revenue shortage led to the project's cancellation in 2005. The public paid $124 million.

"The monorail had it right in a number of ways," said McGinn. "It served Seattle neighborhoods, it was separated from traffic. Where it fell apart was that it didn't have an adequate financing plan, and it didn't integrate with other systems."

Seattle now has the chance to learn from Portland and from its own history, he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

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