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Originally published Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 9:29 PM

$60 car-tab fee: What would Seattle get?

Proposition 1, on Tuesday's mail-in ballot, would raise $204 million over a decade for transit, streets, pedestrians, bicycles, freight and various planning or educational efforts. Here's a look at how it would be spent.

Times transportation reporter

quotes Let me think about this slowly, thoughtfully, carefully and in a measured manner. No. Read more
quotes To make the curb and bus stop protrude into the street and have cars stop while the bus... Read more
quotes None of the specific projects mentioned in this story are specified in the spending... Read more

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Last year, a coalition of Seattle activists urged environmentalist Mayor Mike McGinn to spend more to help people get out of their cars, in a city where lanes and bridges strain to hold traffic. He liked the goal but didn't have the money.

Now the choice is up to voters, asked to dig deeper for transportation by paying a $60 annual car-tab fee.

Proposition 1, on Tuesday's mail-in ballot, would raise $204 million over a decade for transit, streets, pedestrian improvements, bicycles, freight and various planning or educational efforts.

Some promises are specific: String electric trolley-bus wire down 23rd Avenue in the Central District, create a safe bike and pedestrian "greenway" across Wallingford, repair the broken south mile of Delridge Way Southwest. One-fifth of the money would go to pave Seattle's crumbling streets.

Other aspects seem foggier, such as $5 million in "ongoing education, encouragement and incentive programs to increase use of pedestrian, bicycle and transit facilities and services."

The $60 car-tab fee would be in addition to the Bridging the Gap property-tax levy of 2006, currently in its fifth of nine years. A $20 car-tab fee began in May citywide and a two-year, $20 fee to preserve King County Metro Transit bus hours begins in January.

Here's a look at how the money would be spent:

Transit

The fee wouldn't pay for significant bus hours. Instead, it's supposed to make King County Metro's existing service quicker.

Most of the $100 million transit share would go to renovate streets, sidewalks and bus stops or add overhead electric wire.

The city's goal is to improve eight popular corridors, for about $5 million each.

The prime example for proponents is crosstown Route 44, from the Ballard Locks to the University of Washington Medical Center, which carries 1.7 million riders a year and arrives late about 20 percent of the time.

Next to the Wallingford QFC store, there's a special signal that lets a westbound bus pull out from its stop on North 45th Street, to cross Wallingford Avenue North before cars get their green.

Those signals would be built all over town if the measure passes.

"It actually works better for cars, because the bus doesn't have to wedge its way into car traffic," said Ref Lindmark, who co-chaired the city's transportation-advisory committee.

In addition, sidewalks and bus stops would protrude farther so buses stop in the road lane, which blocks traffic but keeps the bus from being delayed after picking up passengers. Depending on the site, motorists might have to wait behind the bus until passengers, including those in wheelchairs, get onboard, as on newly rebuilt Dexter Avenue North.

City Councilman Tom Rasmussen says bus-travel times could be reduced as much as 20 percent if changes are made on an entire route.

The first rebuilt corridors would be Route 44 in the north end and an electric connection through the Central District. By stringing wire on 23rd Avenue, the city and Metro could make trolley buses go all the way to the University of Washington, while passing the Mount Baker light-rail station and Garfield High School.

About $20 million is earmarked for electric-bus extensions. Route 8, east-west on crowded Denny Way, could be electrified from Lower Queen Anne Hill up to Capitol Hill or extended northwest to Interbay.

The plan reacts to two huge policy shifts at Metro in fall 2012: to scrap low-ridership lines and eliminate the Ride Free Zone downtown.

Seattle would spend $14 million for noncar-education projects, incentives or service partnerships. These might include handing out prepaid ORCA fare cards, especially to the poor, to encourage transit use. Cards also would reduce the time buses spend at stops downtown waiting for riders to fumble with cash and coins.

Car-tab money might help fund a free downtown circulator line, city staff members say. Shuttle vans or minibuses could run from housing or social-service complexes to the Link light-rail stations, among other concepts. (Community Transit has made similar moves in Snohomish County.)

At least four funding scenarios for the car-tab money have been published this fall. One of them involves spending about $6 million for publicity, planning or other vague ideas, according to David Miller, of the opposition campaign Sidewalks and Streets for Seattle. The City Council is allowed to change the allocations, a situation that Miller calls "a politician's dream."

The plan includes $18 million to choose, design and engineer streetcar routes, with maybe a few million left to build tracks or buy railcars. The Federal Transit Administration recently endorsed the streetcar program by awarding $900,000 to help Seattle select a downtown corridor, linking the city's South Lake Union streetcar to the future First Hill streetcar funded by Sound Transit.

Streets

About $40 million is earmarked for pavement and another $20 million to install or maintain signs and signals.

Final choices haven't been made, but a city Department of Transportation map and list show where the most dire street problems are, which won't be fixed with Bridging the Gap money.

Leading candidates include Lake Washington Boulevard East through the Arboretum; Columbia Street from First to Third avenues; the northern part of Beach Drive Southwest; 14th Avenue South on Beacon Hill and California Avenue Southwest for a mile south of West Seattle Junction. Concrete "bus pads" would replace pavement that heavy buses have broken in the south Delridge area and alongside North Seattle Community College.

The signs-and-signals fund increases traffic-light maintenance checks to twice a year and would replace or maintain up to 28,000 signs and 4,000 crosswalks over a decade.

Sidewalks

About $23 million would go to sidewalks, pedestrian signals and crossings.

Top-ranked spots on the sidewalk to-do list are Westlake Avenue North next to the Aloha Street pedestrian bridge; 24th Avenue South at South College Street, Beacon Hill; and 30th Avenue Northeast in Lake City, close to neighborhood retailers and bus routes.

Seattle would add about eight blocks a year of new sidewalk. Miller says that's not enough; he suggests going back to the voters with another plan to build more.

Bicycles

Proposition 1's largest campaign contributor is the Cascade Bicycle Club, at about $18,000. However, the $14 million allocated to cycling is among the least-clear parts of the spending plan.

Momentum has increased to create protected side-street routes called "greenways" for bicyclists and pedestrians. The latest version of the plan actually names Wallingford, University District and Beacon Hill as the first parts of a 20-mile, $9.6 million greenway effort.

A greenway typically operates at a 20 mph speed limit, with speed bumps, curbs, plantings or bioswales to slow crossing traffic, along with new signals or pedestrian-refuge islands where the greenway crosses busy arterials.

It's unclear whether the city will add any major trails with car-tab funds none is promised and the current list calls for smaller things, such as 48 miles of bike lanes, signs and lane marking, 1,125 bike-parking spaces, and $900,000 to promote cycling and walking.

Further complicating matters, some council members propose $400,000 to update the 2007 Bicycling Master Plan. Councilwoman Sally Bagshaw, the leading greenway supporter, said this week that Seattle DOT must provide a detailed study plan before she or other council members would actually release study funds.

Freight

About $500,000 would be spent to publish a Freight Mobility Plan, but none directly for freight projects. Trucking is benefiting already from a Port of Seattle overpass to avoid rail tracks near Spokane Street, and soon the city's own Spokane Street Viaduct widening will add a Harbor Island exit lane, followed by a 2016 truck overpass near the state's Highway 99 tunnel. But another longstanding goal — to bridge South Lander Street train tracks — remains unfulfilled.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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