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Thursday, May 25, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Nickels paves the way for an expensive legacy

Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman revitalized Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market. Charles Royer gave us Westlake Center and park. Paul Schell delivered parks and libraries. And Norm Rice led the way on a stunning revitalization of Seattle's downtown retail core.

Sooner or later, every mayor begins to think about his legacy. It's a process that can transform a mayor who vowed to be a back-to-basics leader into one with an army of backhoes and a parade of cement trucks.

Whether he admits it or not, Mayor Greg Nickels, now in his fifth year, is feeling the legacy tug. His latest proposal, a whopping $1.8 billion street- and bridge-improvement package, certainly would leave Seattleites remembering his mayoralty — every time they pay the package's soaring property tax, new parking tax and $25 per-employee head tax.

We need to fix our streets, but holy moly, do we need to tackle this all at once?

Nickels' proposal is bold and daring, perhaps willfully designed to reach too far. Maybe he tells himself: Start big; give the City Council something to do.

The 20-year program may increase the property tax beyond what even the proudest tax-and-spend liberal Seattleite can manage.

The tax bill for voter-approved levies on the average Seattle home has increased roughly fourfold since 1996. The endless piling on of new taxes will drive young families from the city. A pretty steep price for progress.

The proposed tax at commercial parking lots might diminish the many good things former Mayor Norm Rice did to breathe life into downtown. If driving to shop becomes too expensive, downtown will become a haven for Lexus drivers and bus riders. Everyone else will head to the malls.

What was Nickels thinking? Certainly, there is some social engineering involved in taxing parking, but if he makes a trek to downtown movies or Pacific Place too unpleasant, people won't bother.

Keep in mind the $1.8 billion does not include — one more time, does not include — a contribution to a $3.6 billion tunnel Nickels insists be built to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. (The state has already pledged $2 billion to the project, enough to pay for most of the rebuild.)

In November, Seattle voters will be asked to pick their preferred viaduct replacement — aerial rebuild, tunnel, or perhaps a surface street. Deviously, the ballot title may not explain the cost differences between the proposals or the extra taxes needed.

Later, we may see an increase in utility rates or property, or other taxes to help pay for the tunnel.

As the years click by, every mayor ponders his legacy. There is a big difference in attitude between getting elected a first time and how a leader thinks and acts in a second or third term.

Nickels came into office in 2002 as the economy was heading south. His message was rightly calibrated for the moment: Get off predecessor Paul Schell's vision thing and run a no-frills government.

Over time, though, actions speak louder than words. This mayor likes big projects, high taxes and prodigious amounts of concrete.

Remember, Nickels was an early supporter of the now-defunct monorail. He and King County Executive Ron Sims are the dynamos behind Sound Transit light rail.

Nickels is fighting for his beloved tunnel with every ounce of his political strength. If he wins, he would be remembered as the mayor who reconnected the central city and the waterfront.

The road and bridge repairs, assuming everyone learns to live with the big tax hit, will also make the city look good and operate more efficiently.

But let's get real. None of what Nickels proposes occurs in a vacuum. Executive Sims salivates over a sales-tax increase for enhanced bus service; a regional transportation plan aimed at the 2007 ballot will seek billions more.

Is there a Seattleite not feeling the pinch?

When Seattle is in an economic upswing, voters tend to share the optimism and reach for the sky.

Yet, if Nickels isn't careful, he will have a lasting legacy all right, one he won't like: "Mayor Nickels? Isn't he the one who ran taxes up so high he drove out Seattle's middle class?"

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is jbalter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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