Dow Constantine wants to do it right: King county executive discusses light rail, SR 99 and "Seattle Squeeze"
By Gwen Davis
King County Executive Dow Constantine has long been a hard-core public transportation advocate for the greater Seattle area. On Thursday evening, Jan. 24, at the monthly West Seattle Transportation Coalition (WSTC) meeting, his commitment to robust transportation projects was on full display.
"I’ve spent a lot of time my time in office on transportation," he said. "From bringing the water taxi from nearly nothing to what it is now, to bringing Metro Transit back from the deficit of the recession to being recognized as the best transit system in the nation."
But he said that while transportation is strong, work still needs to be done.
Regarding ST3, the light rail extension project, Constantine would prefer that light rail be extended to West Seattle via an underground tunnel.
"I will not accept the idea of the rail coming through and taking out a bunch of existing buildings or development potential," he said.
But of course, there is the cost.
"That will continue to be a challenge because obviously it costs more to tunnel," he said. "But these are 100-year decisions and we need to figure out how to do it right. And that doesn’t involve SDOT just figuring out ways how to come up with the money. We‘re working with the City of Seattle to figure out how the funding gap could be filled within years, so we have the best transit system for our neighborhood long after we’re gone."
Constantine was asked by board member Michael Taylor-Judd how the county would come up with the funds.
"There’s everything from a general tax on all of Seattle, to bonds, to something like tax increment financing, which is deeply unfavored under current Washington law," he replied. "Those are conversations we really are engaged with the City of Seattle — I don’t think it’s gotten down to specifics."
But he made clear that quality is critical.
"This is not just a generation investment," he said. "This is a once in a century investment, and it just doesn’t make sense to not do it right."
Regarding the current SR 99 closure, Constantine said the city is coping well, overall.
"Folks have taken advantage [of alternative routes]," he said, which has allowed things to run smoothly. "We have also set aside 20 buses to fill in places where they were needed -- they got to the C Line and the E Line. As of yesterday, about 27,000 people were served by the additional coaches."
However, traffic volume has still been a challenge since the closure.
"But everyone's pitching in to make it work, and I appreciate the people who are willing to leave earlier or later," he said.
There will be one more full week of closure, before the new tunnel opens.
"The moment has shown us once again that at least for a period, we can adjust to these situations," he said. "This will help us [feel] more competent about our ability to move people under different circumstances [in the future]."
Regarding the "Seattle Squeeze", which addresses traffic congestion, Constantine said that he favors installing cameras on the freeway which will catch drivers who unlawfully travel in bus lanes.
"There’s probably no one who gets more furious with bus lane cheaters than I do," he said. "Every morning since Viaduct closed, I sit there in the middle lane and see people fly by me."
"But of course I can’t rail at them or get in a conflict because everyone recognizes me," he joked.
"Video will create a general deterrent and get the worse offenders," he said.
Constantine also mentioned that while putting more buses on the road might be welcomed for some routes, it doesn't do any good if traffic is not moving.
"Simply making it possible for buses to travel freely reduces challenges for everyone," he said. "A lot of what we can do from the Metro perspective is to keep adding more coaches, but it’s only great if [traffic moves]. It doesn’t do anything if nothing is moving."
Finally, Constantine cautioned that because Washington's main source of tax revenue is sales tax, the county is vulnerable to transportation projects getting delayed if there happens to be another economic downturn.
"Metro is tremendously susceptible to economic fluctuations," he said. "The back bill is all sales tax, and when the economy hiccups, everyone stops. We lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the last recession and the Trump recession will be a big challenge, as well," he predicted. "We don’t want to cut areas that are under-served."
Constantine summed up his remarks by highlighting his personal dream of making the county's public transit system excellent.
"I'm still seeking resolution from the 'trauma' of my childhood when voters foolishly turned down rail twice when I was in grade school," he said. "I feel like I’ve done an awful lot of work on this and I feel like a lot of it has been catch-up. We need to leave this place better than how we found it."
Rest of WSTC meeting:
Board members also discussed ST3 light rail plans more in depth, including routing alternatives and environmental impact study (EIS) planning. Jolene Hass, treasurer at the Duwamish Tribal Council was present, and said she's interested in supporting the coalition by offering her facility for the coalition's meetings. She also invited participants to attend the tribe's 10 year anniversary open house celebration, coming up on Jan. 26 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
my only comment here: it is chilling to see an elected official disparaging past votes as foolish. What Dow Constantine is saying in effect is that the government knows best, so people should just step aside while the government does its thing. Given the recent polling, in which a majority of Seattle and suburbs are against tolling I5, against increased bike lanes, against reduction in parking spaces for new developments, we are seeing a top down, government knows best approach. Perhaps the city will inthe future become a micro China, in which the news is financed by the government, and taxes are raised against the wishes of the citizens paying the, because, well, government knows best. I'm just dumbstruck that this is even a talking point. And yes, I'm a progressive democrat, not a closet republican.