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September 8, 2009 at 3:23 PM

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Joe, Mike and Seattle streetcars, Part II

Posted by Mike Lindblom

Even though Joe Mallahan opposes streetcars in general, his campaign today said it is possible that he would avoid fighting Sound Transit's planned First Hill streetcar -- if the project stays within its $120 million budget.

Streetcars are becoming a wedge issue between Seattle mayoral candidates Mallahan and Mike McGinn.

McGinn held a news conference this morning to wholeheartedly back the First Hill line, part of a regional, $18 billion Sound Transit expansion voters approved last fall. The First Hill line -- which would go from International District/Chinatown Station to the future Capitol Hill light-rail stop -- would serve hospital workers as well as students from Seattle Central Community College and Seattle University, McGinn said.

Last week, Mallahan told The Seattle Times he would study and possibly oppose the First Hill line as a waste of money.

That drew a swipe from McGinn this morning: "I believe when the voters vote for something and approve something, we should build it," he said.

Mallahan spokeswoman Charla Neuman today inserted the on-budget angle into the debate.

"Your post is still accurate," she said. "Joe yes, generally thinks that streetcars are an inefficient use of transportation dollars. They cost more to operate and maintain than a bus...Streetcars are only effective if they run in their own right of way. None of the proposals in Seattle do that, nor do they include a lottery ticket to pay for it," she said.

"If the city of Seattle and Sound Transit find it is not feasible, or the costs exceed $120 million, at that point the city of Seattle or Sound Transit can abandon the plans to build it and re-invest (money) in other transportation options for that neighborhood. No one is suggesting you do anything contrary to what voters agreed to. Joe governs in the land of reality. Joe knows that if the project meets the criteria and it's something voters approved, it moves forward, even if he's mayor."

McGinn said that if there were cost overruns they probably wouldn't be large, because streetcars run along the surface and are a well-established technology.

In a related issue, McGinn repeated his comment from last week that a First Avenue streetcar, proposed by current Mayor Greg Nickels, should be set aside in favor of higher transit priorities such as saving Metro bus service from cuts, or bringing rail to other neighborhoods. "We're going to need more mass transit in West Seattle and Ballard," he said.

McGinn commented that the First Hill streetcar should run as much as possible in its own right of way -- like the Sound Transit Tacoma Link - instead of in road lanes, like the South Lake Union streetcar.

Neuman replied separate right-of-way would likely drive the costs over $120 million.

Legally speaking, Sound Transit estimates are nonbinding; the agency may spend more money, delay projects, or reduce features such as the number of stations.

The 2008 ballot measure promised the First Hill streetcar by the mid 2010s. Seattle City Council members hope to speed up the timeline, and will begin to negotiate construction agreements with Sound Transit next week.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.