Morning Crank: A “Reset” for Move Seattle

1. The Seattle Department of Transportation and the Durkan administration will soon propose what is being called a “reset” for Move Seattle, the $930 million levy that passed in 2015, to reflect the reality that the federal funding that the city assumed would be available for many of the projects has not come through from the Trump Administration, as well as increased cost estimates for some projects on the levy list.

The “reset” will likely mean significant cuts to some of the projects that were promised in the levy, particularly those that assumed high levels of federal funding, such as seven proposed new RapidRide lines, which were supposed to get more than half their funding ($218 million) from the feds. “They’re calling it a ‘reset,’ but I don’t know what that means,” says city council transportation committee chairman Mike O’Brien.  “It’s not terribly encouraging.” Additionally, O’Brien says, “costs have gone up significantly in the last few years because of the pace of the economy,” making capital projects, in particular, more expensive than the city bargained for.

The City Budget Office and the Seattle Department of Transportation are still having conversations about what the cuts might look like, but according to multiple current and former city staffers familiar with the situation, one possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be dramatically scaled back, but not eliminated entirely. A third possibility is that some projects could be delayed until a future levy (or Presidential administration) or paid for with other funding sources .Move Seattle taxes will be collected through 2024. The mayor and SDOT are expected to release details of the “reset” in the several weeks.

One possibility is that some of the planned new RapidRide lines might no longer happen on schedule or at all; another is that some projects could be scaled back, but not eliminated entirely.  

The city was counting on about $564 million in federal funds to leverage the $930 million in local tax dollars in the voter-approved levy, but since the 2016 election, all bets are off. (Seattle’s sanctuary city status has prompted several threats from the Trump Administration to withhold federal grant funding from the city.)  SDOT has not released a 2017 financial report for Move Seattle, so it’s difficult to say how much federal money came in during the first full year under the new federal regime, but in 2016, the city received and spent just $16.3 million in federal funds on Move Seattle projects—a tiny fraction of that $564 million total. I have requested the 2017 spending report for Move Seattle from SDOT and will update this post if I receive it.

The projects on this list that could be particularly at risk for cuts include those that rely heavily on federal funding, including not just the seven RapidRide lines but bridge safety improvements, pedestrian safety projects, and sidewalks in neighborhoods that don’t currently have them. The percentage of federal funds assumed for each category of projects ranges from none to 86.7 percent.

“We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.” – Council member Rob Johnson  

It’s a particularly inopportune time for more bad news from SDOT. Last week, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was putting the Center City Streetcar on “pause” because of dramatic cost overruns, and earlier this week, Durkan announced that the city would delay a long-planned protected bike lane on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle until 2021, when the Northgate light rail station opens, ostensibly to avoid eliminating motorized traffic lanes on Fourth during the upcoming “period of maximum constraint” downtown. Interim SDOT director Goran Sparrman got an earful about the delayed bike safety improvements from both O’Brien and council member (and former Transportation Choices Coalition director) Rob Johnson during his presentation on the One Center City plan earlier this week; Johnson said that one of his “frustrations” was that although the city says it prioritizes pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders over cars, its actions downtown have done exactly the opposite. “It’s not just that we aren’t dedicating enough of the center city to bicycle facilities, but ditto on the transit side of things, Goran,” Johnson said. “We’re still giving between 70 and 75 percent of our lane miles [downtown] over to folks that are only 25 percent of the [commuter] population. To me, that seems like a really inequitable use of public space.”

2. On Wednesday, with little fanfare, One Table—the 91-member work group tasked with coming up with recommendations to address the regional homelessness crisis—released its recommendations, in a nine-page document that includes no cost estimates, no funding proposals, and no timeline for implementing any of the ideas on the list. The city of Seattle’s progressive revenue task force, which recommended a tax on employers that could raise up to $75 million annually, has said that it would wait until One Table to release its recommendations before recommending additional taxes, with the ultimate goal of raising a total of $150 million a year.

The recommendations, which were released jointly by King County and the cities of Seattle and Auburn, are mostly familiar: Providing 5,000 units of affordable housing across the county over three years, by building new housing and by “increasing access to existing housing choices”; treatment on demand; financial assistance for housing, including short-term help for people in crisis; and increased investment in job programs for people at risk of homelessness. Since the list of “actions” doesn’t include any dollar amounts, it’s hard to assess how ambitious the proposal truly is, but 5,000 units in three years throughout King County (to say nothing of the three-county Puget Sound region) will house fewer than half of the 12,000 people living outdoors or in sanctioned encampments or shelters in King County alone. Job programs and homelessness prevention efforts will undoubtedly prevent some people from falling into homelessness and making that number even larger, but until it’s clear how the recommendations would cost and where the money would come from, it’s hard to say what impact the proposals will have, and whether One Table will live up to its promise to “best tackle this problem to ensure expansive and lasting solutions,” as Mayor Jenny Durkan put it when the work group held its first meeting in January.

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Murray Releases Revised $930 Million Transportation Levy Proposal

I’ll have more to say about the latest iteration of the ever-costlier Move Seattle levy (Mayor Ed Murray says the tacked-on $30 million will come from higher revenues from new housing), but I wanted to throw up a quick side-by-side comparison of the two proposals. (Original proposal here; latest version here.) My initial reaction (other than frustration that Murray refuses to release the full details of any new proposal, opting instead for a standard-issue series of blue-and-black handouts), is that this is a good proposal with something for everyone that will inevitably be “right-sized” by a council that’s largely aligned with the mayor but scared of imposing a major property tax increase.

I could be wrong, but last I checked, $275 (the amount a typical homeowner would have to pay per year) is more than $130 (the expiring Bridging the Gap levy’s annual price tag). Readers desperate for sidewalks in their neighborhood at any cost may find charges of “tax fatigue” tiresome (I know I do), but this is a big tax increase, and the council (five of whom are running for reelection) will surely have something to say about that.

My other reaction is that this proposal leans heavily on neighborhood greenways and segregated bike lanes, potentially at the expense of safer bike facilities on streets that already have heavy bike traffic. The recent Metro bus collision that put a cyclist in the hospital with life-threatening injuries happened at an intersection (12th and Jackson) where cyclists from Mount Baker, Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill, and many other parts of the city converge, and which may be even more dangerous now, with the streetcar tracks posing a new threat to cyclists.

Much the same could be said of high-bike-traffic intersections across the city. Yet the emphasis on neighborhood greenways (which were never meant to be major commuter corridors) could–and I say could, because the devil’s in the details of this still-somewhat-opaque proposal–come at the expense of streets that will always be filled with cyclists.

I have a call in to the mayor’s office for a more detailed project breakdown for the $930 million proposal.

Screen shot 2015-05-06 at 12.57.28 PM

Then…

 

... and now.

… and now.

 

Here are some other changes the new plan proposes:

• The new proposal reduces funding for maintaining and improving the city’s traffic signal, sign and marking system, reducing that line item from $67 million (with $20 million in additional leveraged funds*) to $37 million (with $7 million in leverage).

• It slightly reduces protected bike lane and greenway funding, which is down $2 million from $67 million; that money would pay for 50 miles of protected bike lanes and 60 miles of greenways.

• It includes an additional $1 million for curb ramp and crossing improvements.

• The proposal reduces funding to repave arterial streets by $20 million, from $255 million with $70 million in leverage to $235 million, with $50 million in leveraged funds, and reduces funds for repaving “targeted locations” (presumably this is the pothole line item) from $20 million to $15 million, with $5 million in projected leveraged funds for each level of funding. Even with reduced funding, the mayor’s proposal says the money would pay for the same amount of improvements—repaving “up to” 180 lane-miles of arterial streets (not the same thing as actual miles) and 65 targeted locations per year.

• Multimodal and “transit plus” improvements (i.e. RapidRide) get a bit more funding in the mayor’s latest plan—$100 million, compared to the original $75, with $246 million in leveraged dollars under each plan. The transit/”multimodal” improvements have been shuffled and consolidated in this latest plan, though, making it tough to tell how much was originally allocated for signal re-timing and “intelligent transportation system improvements,” for example (those items were lumped into larger categories in the original proposal) and whether the new numbers are an increase or a reduction.

• Sidewalks, the hottest topic at every council district forum, get more love under the latest plan, with $35 million in additional funding for sidewalks and improvements for streets without sidewalks, up to $61 million from the original $26 million (leveraged funds are the same under both expenditure levels, at $9 million).

• Neighborhood projects, vaguely defined, get $3 million more under this plan, with $26 million total compared to the initial $23.

• And South Park Broadview gets $8 million less for flood drainage.

Notice anything I missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@ericacbarnett).