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City candidates talk transpo

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Oct. 2, 2009 at 3:03 pm |
October 3, 2009 4:41 pm

We need better public transit systems in Tacoma.  We need to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles commuting into the city.  We need to improve our streets.

We need, we need, we need … vote_1

In a candidates’ forum heavy on the “need to,” but largely short on the “how to,” municipal candidates last night spoke about the transportation issues facing Tacoma amid the backdrop of rapid population growth projections in coming years.

But emerging within the usual platitudes offered during the roughly 2-hour forum at UW-T (Think: “We need a vision…”), was an occasional morsel in their spoken words to help better flesh out the candidates and draw some stark differences among them.

During the event — a videotape of which will begin airing on Click TV by Oct. 16, and continue to be broadcast through Election Day — candidates were given a timed allotment to respond to most questions. Each candidate also was provided two playing cards, which they could use as they chose, to extend their response times when answering any of the questions.

Here’s a look at some of what went on:

Exchange of the night: In a tit-for-tat exchange heavy on Sound Transit context, Mayoral candidates Jim Merritt and Marilyn Strickland helped to define their stances on the  controversial design for the Sounder rail project through Tacoma’s Dome District — with nary the words “berm” or “post and beam” even mentioned.

Playing one of his cards after the opening round of remarks during the forum, Merritt charged that the candidates’ initial responses to a general question about comprehensive transportation planning for Tacoma consisted of “a lot of rhetoric,” adding that city project planning is currently stymied by a “top-down planning” approach that doesn’t listen to citizens.

Merritt, who has similarly criticized the Sound Transit design process that now seeks to build an earthen berm to elevate and connect the D to M Street Sounder rail line, asserted that any good comp planning “has to start with grassroots planning,” or come from citizens on the ground, and up to elected officials — and not the other way around.

Strickland responded that “41 community meetings does not represent top-down planning” — an answer that specifically accounted for the Sound Transit D to M street project planning process.  She and other officials have asserted that the process has been extraordinarily inclusive, despite what Merritt has suggested.

Officials have listened, Strickland said last night, but she noted that not every person can be completely satisfied during such a process.

“People elect us to make decisions,” Strickland added, noting at some point, decisions must be made to move such projects forward — or they’ll never get done.

Later in the forum, Merritt retorted: “You can have 100 meetings, but if they all go one way, from the top down” then city officials aren’t truly listening to its citizens.

Keeping it local: District 5 council candidates Joe Lonergan and Beckie Summers Kirby each largely played to their districts in south Tacoma.

In a question about encouraging growth around the city’s mixed-use centers, Lonergan noted an expansion of services  will ensure such smart growth, emphasizing the lack of a grocery store in south Tacoma as an example.

“People have to travel three miles” out of the neighborhood to get groceries, Lonergan said. “That’s not good for te economy, the community or the environment. “If we have the services people need, you’re going to have denser communities.”

Similarly, Summers Kirby underscored she knows her digs, too,  saying at one point she often walks her neighborhood and recognizes that its decrepit streets and sidewalks are impossible to navigate for seniors, the disabled or others who may have difficulty getting around.

“We cannot afford to continue to talk about transportation without including safety,” she said.

Owning the issue: District 4 candidate Marty Campbell effectively portrayed himself as the authority on downtown parking issues — so much so that other candidates referred to him in their own answers.

Campbell, whose opponent Roxanne Murphy was unable to  attend the forum, emphasized his months of work on a downtown stakeholders panel that revamped an controversial city plan to install paid parking downtown into one now largely supported by downtown merchants.

Following Campbell on a question about the city’s planned changes to its downtown street parking, Summers Kirby said she hadn’t “looked at the plan.”

“I’m very glad we have a watchdog like Marty Campbell on top of it,” she said, adding that if elected, she’d continue to “make sure he stays on top of it.”

Emphasizing the point: At-large Council candidate Keven Rojecki touted his experience at the state’s capitol  when playing a card at the end of the forum, and thus getting in the last word of any candidate.  Rojecki noted that $80 million reserved for expanding Tacoma’s LINK system from the voter-approved Sound Transit initiative represents “one of the greatest opportunities” Tacoma has for its future transportation needs.

But in order to get that money,  Tacoma has to match the funds – a difficult prospect given the current economy.  Rojecki, who has worked as a firefighters lobbyist in Olympia, as well as serves on the state’s Gambling Commission, said the needed matching funds can be secured through the state — if the city’s officials have enough juice. To infer that he, in fact, does have it, Rojecki noted his “work with the governor and the Legislature” — and effectively drew a distinction between himself and challenger, Victoria Woodards, chair of the MetroParks board.

“We can bring capital money back to Tacoma,” Rojecki said. “We need to get that investment back from the state to help us.”

No more parking garages: Woodards responded to one question that she doesn’t support building more structured parking downtown. “I certainly don’t believe we need to build any more parking garages downtown taking up the city’s vibrant spaces,” she said.

Under current plans, city officials now support building parking garages near the Tacoma Dome and as part of the planned Elks renovation projects as part of an effort to relieve street parking.

And the Best Use of Alternate Transportation Award goes to… : District 2 Councilman Jake Fey, who is running unopposed.

In a question fielded from the audience near the end of the forum, candidates were asked how they get to work and when was the last time they used public transportation or bike lanes. Fey blew the field away.

As most candidates conceded they typically drove to work, he noted that in the last week, he has bicycled 25 miles, took the bus from Tacoma to a meeting in Seattle, telecommutes two days a week, and walked his district, without using his car at all, to do door-belling work for the campaign.

But despite his activity in alternate transportation modes, Fey agreed that, “bus service in northeast Tacoma sucks.”

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