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Originally published October 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 15, 2007 at 7:09 AM

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Election 2007

"Mercer Mess" fix in Proposition 1 stirs doubts

Look at the Web site set up by backers of Proposition 1, the Nov. 6 ballot measure funding roads and light rail, and tucked inside is a...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Proposition 1 taxes

Here's what you'd pay:

Sales tax An increase of 6 cents per $10 purchase — a total of about $150 a year per household, on average.

Car-tab tax A new tax of $80 per $10,000 of vehicle value.

Both taxes would be paid by most households in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Look at the Web site set up by backers of Proposition 1, the Nov. 6 ballot measure funding roads and light rail, and tucked inside is a promise to upgrade Seattle's Mercer Street corridor "to improve traffic flow."

Mercer Street has long been one of the city's biggest traffic headaches. It runs one way from Seattle Center to Interstate 5, and it's often jammed.

But Proposition 1, if it passes, would fix just six blocks of the "Mercer Mess." City planners have estimated that nearly $90 million would go toward making Mercer Street a two-way, from Fairview Avenue North to Dexter Avenue North. The fix, widening the street from four one-way lanes into six lanes, three in each direction, would end a block short of busy Aurora Avenue North.

With an uncertain future for the Alaskan Way Viaduct and streets north of the Battery Street Tunnel, that's all the federal government would allow, explained Grace Crunican, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation. "That's where the feds drew the line," she said.

The city is tied to federal regulations because it received federal funding for planning and environmental assessment work for the Mercer project.

Proposition 1, on the ballot in urban areas of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, calls for increased sales and car-tab taxes to pay for road improvements and to extend light rail to Lynnwood, Overlake and Tacoma by 2027.

The proposal is expected to cost nearly $18 billion in 2006 dollars. With inflation, financing, operations, overhead and cash reserves, the entire package is projected to cost around $38 billion by the time all work is finished in 20 years.

Included in the package is $323 million for what has been called the "Seattle mobility project," which includes Mercer along with projects to add a bus lane to the Spokane Street viaduct so buses can exit into the Sodo neighborhood, and to build an overpass on South Lander Street to cross the BNSF Railway tracks.

In addition to making the six lanes of Mercer two-way, the adjacent Valley Street would be changed from four lanes to two, with a bike lane.

Whether a reconfigured Mercer Street would improve traffic flow is in dispute. A City Council staff report in 2004 found that "the two-way Mercer improvements will do little or nothing to keep the already severe congestion in South Lake Union from getting significantly worse in the future. Therefore it is highly questionable that the two-way Mercer improvements will support the desired growth in South Lake Union, foster greater transit use, or effectively reconnect South Lake Union with nearby neighborhoods."

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis disputed the staff report when it was issued, saying it used wrong data and a flawed methodology, and "presents the council with misleading conclusions." Mayor Greg Nickels supports Proposition 1.

Ceis also said the council report envisioned a $200 million Mercer project; the latest plan is estimated to cost $119 million.

In addition to the nearly $90 million in Proposition 1 money, $30 million has been dedicated to the Mercer project under the Bridging the Gap package approved by Seattle voters last November.

So what will happen to traffic on Mercer west of Dexter, where the two-way traffic would end? Crunican said she doesn't know but suggested that Mercer Street from Aurora Avenue North to Seattle Center could be restriped to allow two-way traffic — assuming a trimmed Mercer could handle the traffic.

If that doesn't happen, she said, traffic would exit at Ninth Avenue North onto a rebuilt connection to Broad Street. Drivers would no longer be able to get to Broad Street from Valley Street.

Critics say the money for a reconfigured Mercer Street would benefit one big South Lake Union landowner: Paul Allen.

"It's a colossal waste of money," said University District activist Matt Fox. "It's a taxpayer-financed front lawn for Paul Allen."

Allen's Vulcan development company is remaking many of the properties in South Lake Union. The City Council last month authorized the city's Department of Transportation to begin negotiating with property owners along the Mercer corridor to buy some or all of 63 parcels so it can reconfigure Mercer and Valley streets between Fairview and Dexter.

The city may buy back some of the property it sold six years ago to Allen. Of the 63 parcels, 30 are owned by Allen's company, six of which were bought from the city.

Michael Mann, a transportation-policy adviser to Nickels, said the city hasn't started talking to Allen about his property, but Mann acknowledged, "Vulcan does get a benefit from it."

Proposition 1 calls for construction on a realigned Mercer Street to begin in 2011, but the city wants work to start sooner, so it would have to issue its own bonds, pledging taxes collected under Proposition 1 when they become available.

If the ballot measure fails? "We'll have a big gap in the program," said Mann.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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