Outside City Hall

A budget to benefit all?

Mayor's proposal heavily favors downtown area

A budget to benefit all?

A budget to benefit all?

It’s that time of year when the City Council decides on the mayor’s proposed budget for the coming year. Owing to good economic times, Mayor Ed Murray has proposed a general fund budget of $1.2 billion — $300 million above what was available for city programs in 2015. A careful look it, however, shows it to be business as usual.

Despite repeated requests, the budget remains a “citywide” document with no attempt to break out or identify how much of the budget is apportioned to each of the city’s seven districts. Nor has any attempt been made to rectify the disproportionate share going to South Lake Union and downtown to the detriment of other neighborhoods.

If you don’t think so, go online and link to the City’s 2017 budget. Then run a search for “South Lake Union”. The neighborhood is referenced in relationship to budget items no less that 40 times. Downtown is mentioned another 40 times. In total, downtown neighborhoods are referenced 115 times. If you search for “waterfront” that adds another 106 downtown-related references. The specific projects associated with these words total in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Now run a search for your neighborhood. If you’re from Ballard, the budget references your neighborhood 5 times. Capitol Hill or Lake City — each 8 times. The Duwamish Valley and West Seattle — 10 times. The Central District, Rainier Valley, Queen Anne, Southeast Seattle and Northeast Seattle are each referenced only 2 times. And the projects linked to these neighborhoods each may run to a few thousand dollars at best.

So where does the mayor plan to allocate the additional $300 million in funds generated by our booming economy? He’s got $149 million earmarked over the next 3-5 years for a new overpriced police station in the North End.

“Block the Bunker” and “Black Lives Matter” activists are turning out in droves to oppose this. Critics say it’s easily the most expensive police station in the country. Murray publicly says it’s on hold but his budget reads full steam ahead.

But the single biggest boondoggle is his plan for a $151 million dollar new streetcar system dubbed the “Center City Connector” running through downtown and linking the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars. At 1.2 miles, that’s a whopping $125 million a mile and, like the new police station, it may be the nation’s most expensive streetcar system. And it’s cost has exploded by $30-$40 million since last February.

To pay for this the mayor will seek $75 million in our city’s limited allotment of federal transit funds and float a $45 million bond to be repaid over many years from commercial parking tax revenues. That’s tens of millions we’d otherwise use for bus, road, bridge, and sidewalk needs. There also is $21 million in the Mayor’s budget to extend the First Hill Streetcar along Broadway and funds are committed for planning of a possible $200 million dollar streetcar to Ballard.

What’s our beef with streetcars? They putt along at 5 miles per hour or less, carry few passengers, and cost $100 million-plus per mile of track. Operating costs are 30-40 percent more than bus systems (which are flexible, can easily be rerouted to meet changing transit needs, and carry no costly track outlays). As the Seattle Times has said, streetcars are toys designed to enhance real estate values along their route, not a real transportation solution.

Take the South Lake Union Streetcar. After more than a decade of service (and despite years of promotional hype saying otherwise) it continues to rack up large annual deficits. Ridership and farebox revenues are pitifully low. Only a council approved “interfund loan” keeps it afloat. In 2007, we were assured streetcar revenues easily would cover operations and by now repay the loan. But the streetcar still is operating in the red and each year city monies must go to cover these costs. The loan has been extended twice and $2 million on it remains to be paid.

In a recent internal memo to councilmembers, staff working on the budget questioned whether covering these costs is a “proper use of commercial parking tax revenue” and “whether or not that represents lost funding to projects that benefited disadvantaged communities or new assets to communities with more diverse populations and incomes than that of South Lake Union.”

Yet our mayor is plunging ahead with expansion of this failing streetcar system when our city has so many real and desperate needs. Housing advocates and Councilmembers Sawant and Herbold have called for a bond to fund $100 million in programs per year for five years but the Mayor has consistently rebuffed these efforts.

Despite the Mayor’s constant preaching about his commitment to economic and racial justice and serving our neighborhoods, those values are not reflected in his budget priorities. We’ve heard recently he’s also intentionally delayed bringing a proposal to council that would require developers to pay impact fees so taxpayers wouldn’t foot the entire bill for the new infrastructure — least of all for frills like streetcars that only benefit real estate interests while draining city coffers.

JOHN V. FOX and CAROLEE COLTER are coordinators for the Seattle Displacement Coalition (www.zipcon.net), a low-income housing organization. To comment on this column, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.