Seattle Courant Archive

Friends in High Places

Friends in High Places

By Keith Vance
February 26, 2009

There are a couple of projects worth looking into to see the influence Allen has on Seattle politics: the South Lake Union Trolley and the Mercer Street project.

Let's start with the South Lake Union Trolley.

How long did it take Allen to get his streetcar rolling? Nickels proposed the street car in 2003, two years later it was approved by the City Council and by 2007 the South Lake Union Trolley was operational - funny acronym and all. That's pretty fast considering how long the city has been hemming and hawing over other seemingly more important projects like the Alaskan Way Viaduct and light rail. Of course, those projects will cost billions and the streetcar was about $50 million.

The City Council was initially tepid to the idea of investing transportation money into a 1.3 mile streetcar line, at a cost of about $40 million a mile. There was some discussion that the money could be better spent expanding bus service. But council member Drago and Nickels campaigned hard for Allen's streetcar and they got it.

And just last December Drago convinced enough of her colleagues on the council to approve expanding the streetcar service. Council members Nick Licata and Richard McIver have both consistently opposed funding the streetcar and voted against the $600 million expansion. Licata told the Seattle P-I that too much is unknown about the project, such as how it will effect bus service, and where the money will come from.

Now let's take a look at the other, more costly project.

To fix what some are calling the "Mercer Mess" is going to cost more than $200 million. The idea is to redevelop Mercer Street in South Lake Union - making it a boulevard with sidewalks and trees.

Opponents of the Mercer project are saying that it's nothing more than a beautification project dressed up to look like a transportation project - a gift to Allen. The city's own study shows that redeveloping Mercer will only improve westbound traffic slightly and eastbound traffic will actually move slower.

Originally Nickels proposed the Mercer project back in 2002 to help strengthen his and Allen's plan to build a biotech center in South Lake Union, now he's pitching it as a necessary component of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, in other words, it's a transportation project and should be funded as such.

But the City Council has held up the money for the Mercer project until it's completely funded, which at this time they're about $50 million short.

And now this week, it appears that Nickels and Drago hoodwinked the City Council when they pushed a vote to remove the spending restriction on the Mercer project money. The vote on Monday was an attempt by the council to show legislators in Olympia that the Mercer project was ready to go, all they needed was $50 million in federal stimulus money.

Well on Tuesday they learned that they didn't get the money from the feds and some of the council members feel like they got duped into releasing the money by Drago and Nickels. Council members Licata and Rasmussen, both voted against lifting the proviso, released a statement requesting that the council reverse Monday's decision and that they should hold off on starting the Mercer project until they have the money to complete it.

When asked whether he felt tricked, Licata said, "If what the state legislators said was true, it is difficult to arrive at any other conclusion."

The story of the "Mercer Mess" is certainly far from over, when it is, maybe South Lake Union should be called Allentown and their mascot a Vulcan? Yikes, let's hope not.

Read more about the Mercer project and the council's vote on Monday.