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The city council just announced its top priorities for 2010, and—as first reported on PubliCola earlier today—carbon neutrality was at the top of the list. Council member Mike O'Brien got the biggest applause of this afternoon's meeting when he announced the council would seek to make the city carbon-neutral—meaning that the city's net carbon footprint will be zero—by 2030.

"Climate change is arguably the most significant moral challenge that we're going to face in our lifetimes," he said. "Our actions over the next 100 years are going to impact all of us, but the burdens are going to be carried disproportionately by the poor."

By the end of this year, O'Brien said, the council will come up with a definition of carbon neutral (for example, O'Brien said, if he buys a water bottle made in China and shipped here, should those emissions count toward Seattle's total?), and a set of concrete policies aimed at achieving it.

Some possible actions O'Brien mentioned: Figuring out "a smarter way to get around"; changing land use so that people "live in smaller units closer to where we work and where we play" while simultaneously ensuring that "our densest neighborhoods  are also our most livable neighborhoods"; and improving building efficiency.

Mayor Mike McGinn has been skeptical of the council's approach of adopting lofty goals like carbon neutrality while they simultaneously push policies that work against those goals. Last week, he said, "If we want to spend a year or two setting up a new goal and creating a work plan to do it while we’re taking actions that accomplish the opposite, that’s not what I think we should be doing."

After the meeting, I asked O'Brien whether he had talked to McGinn about the council's proposal and what the mayor had said in response.

O'Brien said he had only talked to the mayor briefly, but added, "I think I have an understanding of where the mayor comes from, and I think where most people come from: Talk is cheap and we need to back it up with action. I’m personally committed, and we’re all committed, to a series of actions" to achieve carbon neutrality, O'Brien said.

During a press availability after the council meeting, McGinn said, "I think it would be great if the city council embraced aggressive action on reducing global warming emissions—that’s been a concern of mine for a long time." However, he said, given that transportation emissions make up half of all carbon emissions in the region, "when you set these goals you start running into pretty hard choices on implementation. ... We're going to have to make some tough choices on transportation and start making them soon."

Moreover, at least two of the council's stated goals contradicted their vision of a carbon-neutral city.

The first was moving forward swiftly on the downtown deep-bore tunnel, which council member Sally Bagshaw identified as one of her top priorities. "We're going to enhance our quality of life by efficiently moving people and freight... [and] preserve the region's natural beauty by moving traffic off the waterfront and supporting new ways that we can get around," Bagshaw said. The only problem: The tunnel, as McGinn has pointed out, explicitly excludes transit.

After the council meeting, McGinn reiterated his commitment to ensuring that Seattle isn't on the hook for tunnel cost overruns. "Here’s what we know about tunnels: They’re expensive. The other thing we know about tunnels is that they very frequently have cost overruns," McGinn said.

"My question for the city council is, are they going to work with us to keep [overruns] from happening, or are they going to proceed with the risk of cost overruns and just deal with that eventuality when it happens?"

The second, starting construction on a new 520 bridge, was outlined by council transportation chair Tom Rasmussen, who said it was time to stop debating about how to replace the bridge and move forward with construction. The state's preferred replacement option would include two HOV lanes and four general-purpose lanes. McGinn has proposed looking at a 520 option that would include high-capacity transit and reduce the number of general-purpose lanes to two. He blamed some of the delay on replacing 520 on people who "don't just want to replace the pontoons," which are causing a safety risk, "they want to build a bigger bridge" as well.

Bagshaw and Rasmussen weren't the only council member who outlined priorities that sounded like veiled jabs at the mayor's agenda. For example, Jean Godden made a point of recognizing "all the city employees in the room," saying, "You are public servants in the best sense of the phrase and we couldn't have done it without you." Then she vowed to "craft a budget that makes smart choices and invests [tax] dollars fairly and efficiently. McGinn angered city employees earlier this year by  proposing the elimination of 200 strategic advisor and senior-level management positions.

Tim Burgess, meanwhile, effectively coopted the mayor's proposed Youth and Family initiative, noting that the council has "spent the last year building stronger relationships with the school board and school district leaders" to help improve the school system and reduce youth violence. McGinn will hold the first in a series of five town meetings on the initiative at the Rainier Community Center tonight at 7.

And Nick Licata said he was committed to keep the Office of Housing—rumored to be a target for elimination by McGinn—open. When I asked him whether he had reason for concern about the office's future, Licata said, "I'm operating on the assumption that the office will continue."

However, asked the same question, McGinn said, "We have some big deicisions to make about how we’re going to reduce our $50 million budget deficit next year … so we’re going to be looking for how we can find efficiencies in how we organize government so that we can preserve services, including housing."
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