Tag: Burke-Gilman Trail

Morning Crank: Another Interim Head for SDOT, More Streetcar Fallout, A Victory for Burke-Gilman Trail Advocates, and “Tolling to Make Congestion Worse.”

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1. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has been headed up by an interim director, Goran Sparrman, for nearly seven months, since controversial director Scott Kubly left the position last December, a month after Jenny Durkan was sworn in as mayor. Durkan extended Sparrman’s tenure as interim SDOT chief by two months at the end of May, when the SDOT director publicly announced that he planned to leave at the end of August. At the time, Durkan’s office announced a national search to replace him, and put out a call for input from the public on what they would like to see in the next SDOT director.

Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle.

Sparrman’s departure date is rapidly approaching, and Durkan has not announced his replacement, nor, apparently, does she plan to any time soon. Instead, The C Is for Crank has learned, will announce yet another interim director—reportedly Genessee Adkins, SDOT’s current chief of staff—and put off hiring a permanent director until this winter, possibly as late as January, according to sources close to the department. The ongoing lack of permanent leadership at the embattled agency, which is dealing with fallout from cost overruns on the delayed downtown streetcar as well as a vocal backlash from bike and pedestrian advocates over Durkan and Sparrman’s decision to delay implementation of the long-planned Fourth Avenue protected bike lane until 2021, has reportedly damaged morale at the agency and contributed to a sense of an agency in turmoil. Compounding the lack of leadership at the top is the fact that all four of SDOT’s deputy directors are also serving on an interim basis, as is the current chief of staff (Adkins is currently on leave), creating an org chart headed up almost entirely by people serving on an impermanent or contingent basis. (The org chart itself, unusually for a Seattle city agency, only includes the names of the seven people at the very top, followed by the general functions each of those people oversee.)

Sparrman will reportedly be taking a job with the HNTB Corporation, a consulting firm that has a large contract to do the engineering work on Sound Transit’s Ballard to West Seattle light rail line and also has numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle. Sparrman reportedly accepted his new private-sector position several months ago. I asked Durkan’s office whether it was a conflict of interest for Sparrman to be negotiating on behalf of SDOT with agencies that could soon be his clients. Her spokeswoman, Stephanie Formas, responded by referring me to the city’s ethics rules regarding former employees, which restrict current employees’ ability to be involved in their future employers’ “dealings with the city,” and restrict former employees’ ability to participate in certain activities, like bidding for contracts, for the first year or two after they leave the city, depending on the activity.

 

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2. Mayor Durkan issued an “update on the Center City Connector” yesterday that confirmed some of what city council member Lisa Herbold was talking about a full five days ago (when I was on vacation; sorry!): The vehicles the city ordered for the indefinitely postponed First Avenue Streetcar are wider and longer than the existing South Lake Union and First Avenue streetcars, suggesting that they may not be compatible with the existing systems the Center City Connector is supposed to connect.

Durkan, to the consternation of some transit advocates, has been lukewarm on the proposed downtown streetcar ever since initial operations cost estimates turned out to be off by as much as 50 percent and the cost to build the system ballooned by tens of millions. A long-awaited independent financial analysis of the project has been delayed because, according to today’s statement from the mayor’s office, the review “was much more complex than initially expected.” One question that could be deal-breaking is whether the new, larger vehicles are even compatible with the gauge of the existing streetcar lines, which run from Pioneer Square to First Hill and from Westlake to South Lake Union.

Formas, the mayor’s spokeswoman, says that it’s possible the lines will still be able to connect—the existing streetcars, for example, are built to slightly different specifications but can still run on each others’ tracks—but the episode brings to mind what happened with the downtown transit tunnel, whose original train tracks, installed almost as an afterthought in 1993, had to be torn out and replaced in the mid-2000s, resulting in additional costs of more than $45 million.

“We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free. We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.”

3. Advocates for completing the long-delayed “missing link” of the Burke-Gilman multi-use trail in Ballard won a small victory last week, when a King County Superior Court judge dismissed a complaint by the Ballard Coalition, a group of businesses that opposes the completion of the trail as proposed by “missing link” advocates, charging that the city hearing examiner who approved the final environmental statement for the project had a conflict of interest. The Coalition argued, essentially, that because then-deputy commissioner Ryan Vancil was up for a promotion when he determined in January that the city’s environmental analysis of the project, which took five years and cost $2.5 million to complete, was adequate. The decision was a significant victory for trail advocates.

In its complaint, the business coalition argued that Vancil violated the appearance of fairness doctrine, which requires public officials to conduct business in a way that appears fair, by applying for and obtaining a promotion from deputy hearing examiner to chief hearing examiner while the city of Seattle had a case in front of him—specifically, the “long-running [Burke-Gilman] dispute.” In his ruling rejecting that argument, Judge Samuel Chung noted that if he were to assume that anyone who applied for a promotion within the hearing examiner’s office was biased in favor of the city, it “would impose a presumption that would taint all virtually all decision making by that body. Every hearing examiner is presumed to be fair and impartial, and an advancement within that office under these facts do not form a basis for an appearance of fairness violation.”

4. Deadlines prevented me from giving my full attention to a resolution the city council passed last week vowing to build out as much of the planned downtown bike network as possible while the Fourth Avenue protected bike lane remains in limbo, but I didn’t want to let one comment from council member Mike O’Brien, who sponsored the resolution, slip by. O’Brien made the remark while we were discussing the “period of maximum constraint” between now and roughly 2021, when construction projects and the closure of the downtown bus tunnel and the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct are expected to jam traffic downtown.

O’Brien, who opposed the Alaskan Way tunnel project, pointed out that everyone who now uses the viaduct to get to points downtown will drive instead on surface streets, and even people going through downtown will use surface streets to avoid the tunnel, contributing to traffic jams during the “period of maximum constraint” from roughly now until 2021, when construction and demolition projects are expected to make downtown traffic worse than at any time in recent history. The day before we talked, O’Brien said, the Washington State Transportation Commission had approved tunnel tolls ranging from $1 to $2.25. “We shouldn’t be tolling that and making our city streets free,” O’Brien told me. “We should be doing it the other way around. We should say, ‘Look if you want to drive [past downtown], take the tunnel, but if you come downtown, we’re going to charge you.” Instead, O’Brien said, Seattle is going to have “anti-congestion pricing—pricing to make congestion worse.”

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Morning Crank: “Unprecedented” Bipartisan Testimony

1. The state Public Disclosure Commission, which enforces campaign finance rules, keeps tabs on lobbyists, and provides a library’s worth of public information about every campaign in the state, has been inundated over the past year by citizen complaints. One very particular citizen, actually: Glen Morgan, the former Freedom Foundation fellow and director of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, who has filed nearly 300 complaints with the agency against Democrats and progressive groups in the past three years. (He has filed a smaller number of complaints with the attorney general’s office, which has 45 days to respond before a citizen filing a complaint can indicate their intent to file a lawsuit; if another 10 days go by with no action from the state, the citizen complainant can sue the person or campaign he feels is violating campaign-finance law.)

Some Democratic organizations have spent down their treasuries and dissolved their political arms in response to the onslaught; others are facing fines of tens of thousands of dollars for violations ranging from  late reports to reports they failed to file at all. This is less of an issue for large, well-funded organizations like the state Democrats or unions like SEIU 775 than it is for small, volunteer-run district party organizations, which often have only a few hundred dollars in the bank and can scarce afford to pay attorneys, much less cough up $10,000-plus fines. The complaints Morgan files are often about violations most observers would find trivial—failing to report the number of copies that were made when paying a printer, for example, or filing a required report one day late.

Morgan, who started filing complaints after local Democrats alleged he violated campaign finance law in a series of misleading robocalls against Democrats running for Thurston County Commissioner in 2016, has only filed complaints against Democratic groups, but he contends his point isn’t that Democrats are uniquely bad at following the law—it’s that the whole system is broken. “Nobody cares about a conservative activist saying all this. It’s irrelevant,” Morgan says. “So you have to demonstrate it by proving that there’s a problem with the widest variety of people possible.”

But Dmitri Iglitzin, a Seattle attorney who has represented several of the Democratic Party groups Morgan is pursuing, says that while Morgan “says he wants to create a crisis and show how screwed up the system is—which he’s done—the fact that he’s only gone after progressive groups and is a former Freedom Foundation Fellow and head of a right-wing organization (the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights) shows that his agenda is to wipe out Democratic party organizations and progressive organizations from the political sphere.”

Whether or not that’s the case, reforming the original law that led to the current, rather byzantine system of campaign-finance reporting—and that turned the Attorney General’s office into a useful bludgeon for activists like Morgan—is a bipartisan issue. Yesterday, the heads of the King County Democrats, Bailey Stober, and the King County Republicans, Lori Sotelo, testified together before the House State Government, Elections, and Information Technology Committee about a bill proposed by Rep. Zach Hudgins that would force complainants like Morgan to file their complaints at the PDC first instead of filing simultaneous complaints with the attorney general’s office. The PDC would have 60 days to take action on a complaint before a citizen could escalate it up to the AG, and the AG would have a longer time—60 days, not 45—to decide whether to take action. The bill would also bar citizens from filing complaints with the AG’s office for violations that amount to less than $25,000.

In his testimony, Stober said the PDC had been “weaponized” against political parties. Sotelo added that the two party leaders had taken the “unprecedented action” of appearing together to demonstrate how important it was to reform the state public disclosure law. They were less sanguine about a separate provision in the bill that would increase the maximum the PDC can fine a candidate or committee from  $10,000 to $50,000.

Morgan testified too, calling the bill an inadequate response to the problems with the public disclosure law. He did not say whether he was on board with the provision quintupling the fine for violating the law.

2. The last major hurdle preventing the city from completing the “Missing Link” of the Burke-Gilman trail in Ballard fell yesterday, when Seattle deputy hearing examiner Ryan Vancil decided that the city’s environmental impact statement is adequate and rejected opponents’ arguments against building the trail. “The weight of the evidence presented supports the determination of the [final environmental impact statement] that the Preferred Alternative will improve safety for non-motorized users over existing conditions,” Vancil wrote in a 20-point, 21-page opinion dismantling every argument the opponents made.

It has been a long road for trail proponents, who have been battling to complete the 1.4-mile gap in the trail for nearly three decades. Currently, cyclists heading through Ballard on the Burke-Gilman must detour through a path that is poorly maintained and crisscrossed by multiple railroad tracks; accidents and injuries are common. Missing Link opponents, including Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel and the King County Labor Council, argued that the presence of cyclists in an industrial area would threaten businesses’ viability and endanger jobs.

In a tweet posted right after the decision came down, council member Mike O’Brien—a daily cyclist and Missing Link proponent since before his election to the council, in 2009—said, “At last! We can move forward to complete the missing link of the Burke-Gilman Trail. I look forward to [Mayor Jenny Durkan] and [the Seattle Department of Transportation[ taking quick action to complete the Burke-Gilman, providing a safer and sound alignment for pedestrians, bicyclists, cars and trucks.”

3. The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce picked a new leader to replace outgoing CEO (and former deputy mayor) Maud Daudon yesterday: Former Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, who will be the first black woman (and the second woman ever) to lead the business group. As Sound Transit board vice-chair, Strickland was a vocal advocate for light rail and a cautionary voice against legislation, just passed by the state  House, that could cut funding for ST3 by more than $2 billion.

By business-establishment standards, Seattle’s business community is unusually progressive, often endorsing measures (like the recent Sound Transit 3 ballot measure and the recent housing levy) supported by the left. The choice of Strickland over other potential leaders (former deputy mayor and Downtown Seattle Association head Kate Joncas was rumored to be in the running) may help assuage fears that the Chamber would respond to recent tax talk in Seattle (including discussion of the employee hours/”head” tax, which they oppose) by choosing a more conventional or conservative leader to take the chamber in a more conservative direction.

 

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site or making a one-time contribution! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as reporting-related and office expenses. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.