Morning Crank: Streetcar Questioned, Sawant Challenged, and Fort Lawton Moves Forward

1. Ever since Mayor Jenny Durkan announced she was moving forward with the stalled First Avenue streetcar last month, supporters and skeptics have been honing their arguments. Fans of the project, which a recent report costed out at $286 million, say it will create a critical link between two disconnected streetcars that each stop on the outskirts of downtown, boosting ridership dramatically while traveling swiftly in its own dedicated right-of-way; skeptics point to a $65 million funding gap, the need for ongoing operating subsidies from the city, and past ridership numbers that have been consistently optimistic.

Today, council members on both sides of the streetcar divide got their first chance to respond publicly to the latest numbers, and to question Seattle Department of Transportation and budget staffers about the viability of the project.  I covered some of the basic issues and streetcar background in this FAQ; here are several additional questions council members raised on Tuesday.

Q: Has the city secured the $75 million in federal funding it needs to build the streetcar?

A: No; the Federal Transit Administration has allocated $50 million to the project through its Small Starts grant process (the next best thing to a signed agreement), and the city has not yet secured the additional $25 million.

Q: Will the fact that the new downtown streetcar will parallel an existing light rail line two blocks to the east be good or bad for ridership? (Herbold implied that the two lines might be redundant, and Sally Bagshaw noted that “if I was at Westlake and I wanted to get to Broadway, I would jump on light rail, not the streetcar.” Rob Johnson countered that “redundancy in the transportation system is a good thing,” and suggested the two lines could have “network effects” as people transferred from one to the other.)

A: This is a critical question, because the city’s ridership projections for the two existing streetcar lines were consistently optimistic. (Ridership is important because riders are what justify the cost of a project, and because the more people ride the streetcar, the less the city will have to subsidize its operations budget). The city’s answer, basically, is that it’s hard to say. Lines that are too redundant can compete with each other; on the other hand, the existence of multiple north-south bus lines throughout downtown has probably helped ridership on light rail, and vice versa. SDOT’s Karen Melanson said the city took the existence of light rail (including future light rail lines) into account when coming up with its ridership projections, which predict about 18,000 rides a day on the combined streetcar route, or about 5.7 million rides a year.

Q. Can the city afford to operate the streetcar, especially when subsidies from other transit agencies run out? King County Metro has been paying the city $1.5 million a year to help operate the existing streetcars, and Sound Transit has kicked in another $5 million a year. Those subsidies are set to end in 2019 and 2023, respectively. If both funding sources do dry up (city budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the city could make a case for the Metro funding to continue), the city will have to find some other source that funding as part of an ongoing operating subsidy of between $18 million and $19 million a year.

A: It’s unclear exactly where the additional funding for ongoing streetcar operating costs would come from; options include the commercial parking tax and street use fees. Streetcar supporters cautioned against thinking of the ongoing city contribution as a “subsidy.” Instead, Johnson said, council members should think of it as “an investment in infrastructure that our citizens support,” much like funding for King County Metro through the city’s  Transportation Benefit District—or, as O’Brien chimed in, roads. “Roads are heavily subsidized,” O’Brien said. “When we talk about roads, we don’t talk about farebox recovery, because we don’t have a farebox.”

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2. In response to reporting by Kevin Schofield at SCC Insight, which revealed that the Socialist Alternative party decides how District 3 Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant will vote and makes all the hiring and firing decisions for her council office, an anonymous person has filed an ethics complaint against Sawant at the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission.

The complaint, signed, “District 3 Resident,” charges that Sawant:

• Violated her obligation to represent her constituents by allowing Socialist Alternative to determine her actions on the council;

• Misused her position as a council member by allowing SA to make employment decisions for her council office;

• Improperly “assisted”  SA in matters involving her office by allowing them to determine her council votes;

• Accepted gifts in exchange for giving SA special access and “consideration,” including extensive travel on the party’s dime; and

• Either disclosed or withheld public information by discussing personnel matters on private email accounts, depending on whether that information turns out to have been disclosable (in which case, the complaint charges, she withheld it from the public by using a private account) or confidential (in which case Sawant violated the law by showing confidential information to outside parties, namely the SA members who, according to SCC Insight’s reporting, decide who she hires and fires.)

“Sawant is not independent, not impartial, and not responsible to her constituents,” the complaint concludes. “Her decisions are not made through the proper channels, and due to her actions, the public does not have confidence in the integrity of its government.”

It’s unclear when the ethics commission will take up the complaint, which was filed on January 8. The agenda for their committee meeting tomorrow, which includes a discussion of the rule requiring candidates who participate in the “democracy voucher” public-financing program to participate in at least one debate to which every candidate is invited, does not include any discussion of the complaint against Sawant.

According to the Seattle Ethics and Elections website, “Seattle’s Ethics Code is a statement of our shared values — integrity, impartiality, independence, transparency. It is our pledge to the people of Seattle that our only allegiance is to them when we conduct City business.”

3. On Monday, the city’s Office of Housing published a draft of the redevelopment plan for Fort Lawton, a decommissioned Army base next to Discovery Park in Magnolia, moving the long-delayed project one step closer to completion. For years, the project, which will include about 200 units of affordable housing, has stagnated, stymied first by a lawsuit, from Magnolia activist Elizabeth Campbell, and then by the recession. In 2017, when the latest version of the plan started moving forward, I called the debate over Fort Lawton “a tipping point in Seattle’s affordable housing crisis,” predicting, perhaps optimistically, that Seattle residents, including Fort Lawton’s neighbors in Magnolia, were more likely to support the project than oppose it, in part because the scale of the housing crisis had grown so immensely in the last ten years.

The plan is far more modest than the lengthy debate might lead you to expect—85 studio apartments for homeless seniors, including veterans, at a total cost of $28.3 million; 100 one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments for people making up to 60 percent of the Seattle median income, at a cost of $40.2 million; and 52 row homes and townhouses for purchase, at a total cost of $18.4 million. Overall, about $21.5 million of the total cost would come from the city. Construction would start, if all goes according to the latest schedule, in 2021, with the first apartments opening in 2026—exactly 20 years, coincidentally, after the city council adopted legislation designating the city of Seattle as the local redevelopment authority for the property.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Streetcar

This post originally appeared on Seattle magazine’s website.

Last week, defying early expectations that she would abandon the planned downtown Seattle streetcar after pausing construction nearly a year ago, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that she would ask the city council to proceed with the project. The caveat? The council will need to come up with additional $65 million to help the Seattle Department of Transportation pay for the project, whose price tag has swelled to an estimated $285.8 million from an original estimate of $134.9 million. (The city’s utility departments will have to come up with another $23 million for utility work that the city says is long overdue with or without the streetcar project.)

In 2015, the city’s estimated cost for the streetcar was $143 million; in 2017 it went up to $197 million; and last August, the estimate was $252 million.

This streetcar line, known as the Center City Connector, would connect the two existing streetcar lines: one that travels from Pioneer Square to First Hill and the other that goes from Westlake through South Lake Union. In doing so, it would create an almost-complete loop from First Hill to South Lake Union.

The latest budget increase is the result of delays to the project timeline (besides the 10-month pause in the project, the city now estimates that it will take 18 months for the Federal Transit Administration to review the project for funding—see below for more details—pushing the opening date from 2022 to 2025); extra costs that Durkan says SDOT failed to account for under her predecessor, Ed Murray, including a new maintenance facility and bridge reinforcements; and the need for large ongoing operations subsidy, which could swell to $19 million a year by the second full year the center city streetcar is in operation.

“It is clear now that the previous SDOT management in the last administration had failed to do the proper due diligence to account for all the costs,” Durkan said in a statement. “As a result, this project was not set up for future long-term financial success[.]”

So what does last week’s announcement mean, and what happens now? We’ve put together some questions and answers to explain where the streetcar goes from here.

Does last week’s announcement mean the streetcar will actually be built?

The streetcar still faces a number of hurdles, including the need for funding at the city and state levels. In December, the Federal Transit Administration told the city that the project remained in the running for a $75 million federal Small Starts grant, but the federal funding is not yet secure; without it, the total SDOT funding gap will be $140 million.

Even assuming a smaller shortfall, the city will have to come up with at least $65 million in additional funding, possibly by issuing bonds against an existing revenue source such the commercial parking tax, or as part of a future transportation levy. The city council will now have to work with the mayor’s office, and incoming SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, to find a source for the additional funding.

Why was there a delay in the first place?

Durkan halted the streetcar project last March after a preliminary review of the project found that costs had ballooned to more than $200 million. The nine-month pause allowed outside evaluators to analyze the cost to build and operate the system as well as SDOT’s engineering work on the project, which a spokeswoman from Durkan’s office says did not include the cost of reinforcing several bridges in Pioneer Square that will need to be strengthened to carry the heavier new trains—which are already on order and weigh about 12 tons more than the existing streetcars.

Why is a streetcar on First Avenue even necessary? Who will it serve?

Business and community groups that support the streetcar, organized as the Seattle Streetcar Coalition, say the First Avenue trolley will do several things: connect downtown businesses and provide a convenient one-seat ride between downtown destinations; serve thousands of low-income downtown residents; and be a speedier option than buses because it will run in its own dedicated lane on First Avenue. Skeptics, meanwhile, counter that Seattle already has a grade-separated light rail train, which runs in the Downtown Transit Tunnel just two blocks east. And, of course, there’s also plain old nostalgia—for more than two decades, the historic George Benson Trolley ran along the downtown waterfront, until its maintenance barn was demolished to make room for the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Courtesy of Seattle Streetcar Coalition

The existing streetcars seem like they’re always empty. Will anyone ride it?

The mayor’s office acknowledges that ridership on the South Lake Union streetcar, which was built partly with private contributions from major SLU landowner Vulcan Real Estate, has declined in recent years. But, they are quick to add, ridership on the First Hill portion of the streetcar—which was built as a kind of consolation prize after Sound Transit killed a planned First Hill light rail stop—has been going up dramatically.

According to the city, once the full line is open, ridership—which on the two existing lines was about 1.4 million a year in 2017—will rise to 7.4 million in 2027, the Center City Connector’s second full year of operations. The mayor’s office also says that the city has studied alternatives to the streetcar—such as reviving a bus route on First Avenue, which was a replacement for the original waterfront trolleys—but says they don’t perform as well in ridership projections as the streetcar.

What changed Durkan’s mind?

In nine months, Durkan went from being a streetcar skeptic to the kind of mayor who says things like, “As we reconnect downtown with our new Waterfront for All, we have the opportunity to create a downtown with fewer cars and where residents, workers, and visitors can walk, bike, and take transit.” In her statement last week, Durkan continued, “A unified streetcar route provides a unique opportunity to build on our investments for the next generation.”

Perhaps the latest round of overruns was smaller than Durkan expected. But she is also responding to the political reality (reportedly communicated to her by her political advisors) that the streetcar enjoys strong support from many constituents, not just the lefty urbanists and transit advocates who voted for her opponent Cary Moon in 2017, but business leaders, developers, and others she needs to have on board if she wants to get reelected in 2021.

The Seattle Streetcar Coalition, which includes the Washington State Convention Center, Transportation Choices Coalition, Uwajimaya, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Downtown Seattle Association, said in a statement immediately following Durkan’s announcement that they were “thrilled” that the streetcar has been revived. In a press release, the coalition “commend[ed] Mayor Jenny Durkan for her leadership on transportation and her commitment to delivering the critical next piece of Seattle’s streetcar system.”

Streetcar Path Forward Included Nudge from Deputy Mayor, Married to Streetcar Consultant, to Meet with Advocates

Mayor Durkan’s decision to move forward also came after political advisors pointed out the popularity of the project among key constituents.

In announcing yesterday that she planned to re-start the process of building the stalled Center City Connector on First Avenue, Mayor Jenny Durkan was responding to a new report from the Parsons engineering firm showing that the project is feasible if the city can come up with an additional $88 million—the gap between the 2017 cost estimate for the streetcar and an updated estimate of $286 million.

But she was also responding to the political reality (reportedly communicated to her by her political advisors) that the streetcar enjoys strong support not just from the lefty urbanists and transit advocates who voted for her opponent Cary Moon in 2017 but from business leaders, developers, and other constituents who she needs to have on board if she wants to get reelected in 2021.

The mayor’s decision to meet with those advocates came shortly after a nudge from one of her deputies with a direct interest in the project’s outcome. Although Durkan was initially reluctant to meet with a group of business leaders and downtown stakeholders who supported the streetcar, she eventually did so—after an email, last June, from her deputy mayor David Moseley, urging her to take the meeting. Moseley  is married to the consultant Durkan hired to do an analysis of the streetcar in July. Previously, Moseley had urged top city officials to accelerate streetcar-related construction that began in 2017, noting that as a property owner along the streetcar route (he and his wife, Anne Fennessy, own a condo in Pioneer Square), he was among those directly impacted by the construction.

Last June, 100 downtown stakeholders, organized as the Seattle Streetcar Coalition, wrote a letter to Durkan urging her to move the streetcar forward, arguing that the 17-block project, which would connect the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars, was “an essential component of our transportation infrastructure, and is currently the only high-capacity transit project planned for the center city before 2035.” At that point, streetcar work had been on hold for several months.

The streetcar advocates, frustrated by what they viewed as a lack of responsiveness from the mayor’s office, asked for a meeting with Durkan herself on June 19, in an email signed by six members of the “Streetcar Steering Committee,” representing the Alliance for Pioneer Square Alliance, Vulcan, and the Downtown Seattle Association, among others. (I obtained this and other emails referenced in this post through a public disclosure request).”We’ve been unsuccessful in obtaining a meeting with you to discuss the future of the Center City Connector Project,” the email said. “Many of the Streetcar coalition members would be willing to help the City revisit a host of cost saving solutions.”

A correspondence assistant from the mayor’s office reached out to the mayor’s staff and the three deputy mayors to ask how to respond. Eight days later, one person did—deputy mayor David Moseley, whose wife, consultant Anne Fennessy, was about to sign a $30,000 contract to “coordinat[e] and integrat[e] the City’s streetcar review.” (Fennessy’s first billing period for this contract began on July 27.) Moseley, who lives with Fennessy in a building located directly on the potential streetcar route, wrote, “Not my area but seems to me the Mayor should meet with proponents of the streetcar. I think it’s worth 30 minutes of her time. Just a thought.”

The email went to members of the mayor’s staff and the two other deputy mayors. A few weeks later, on July 24, the streetcar advocates got a meeting with deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan. One month after that, on August 23, they sat down with the mayor directly—in a meeting that was staffed by the mayor’s then-transportation advisor Ahmed Darrat, and Fennessy.

Moseley, who lives with [his wife, city streetcar consultant] Fennessy in a building located directly on the potential streetcar route, wrote, “Not my area but seems to me the Mayor should meet with proponents of the streetcar. I think it’s worth 30 minutes of her time. Just a thought.” OnJuly 24, the streetcar advocates got a meeting with deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan. One month after that, on August 23, they sat down with the mayor directly—in a meeting that was staffed by the mayor’s then-transportation advisor Ahmed Darrat, and Fennessy.

Moseley has an agreement with the city to recuse himself from “any current or reasonably foreseeable action that to a reasonable person appears to primarily benefit his wife or her firm” and to refrain “from participating in any decisions that pertain to specific matters in which Anne Fennessy or her firm have a financial interest until those matters are concluded; thereby terminating the financial interest.”

Did Moseley’s brief note change the mayor’s mind about meeting with streetcar advocates? Durkan’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, says no. “The note from the Deputy Mayor in June did not impact the decision for the Mayor to meet months later with the Streetcar Coalition in late August ahead of the initial release of the independent review of capital and operating costs of the project,” Formas said     Thursday. “Deputy Mayor Raganathan has been overseeing the review and been the lead on any meetings with transit advocates, community members, businesses, stakeholders and SDOT. She had recommended the Mayor meet with the coalition.”  Even if Moseley’s nudge (or subsequent verbal conversations) did influence the mayor’s decision to meet with the group, it was likely just one of many factors that helped turn the tide back in the streetcar’s favor, along with the new, less-terrible-than-anticipated cost estimates and the mayor’s desire not to alienate a key set of constituents who were urging her to move the streetcar forward.

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But in a sense, whether Moseley’s attempt to influence the mayor by urging her to meet with a group of cranky constituents ultimately did influence the mayor’s thinking on the streetcar issue is almost beside the point. The existence of such an email highlights, not for the first time, the tricky dance that becomes necessary when the mayor’s preferred consultant (and longtime friend) keeps getting contracts to work on city issues, including the streetcar and, more recently, coordination between the city and Sound Transit.

And this was hardly the first such email from Moseley. Back in January, before he signed his recusal agreement, the deputy mayor sent a note  to city staffers, including several at the mayor’s office, complaining about streetcar-related construction in Pioneer Square. “Just to bring some urgency to this issue, I live in Pioneer Square and the work is very impactful to the neighborhood,” Moseley wrote. “I know the work is necessary but I hope we are doing all we can to have the work completed as quickly as possible and with as little impact as feasible.”

It’s probable that neither of these emails cross any kind of formal ethical line. But they do raise questions about what “recusal” means, and whether Moseley should be weighing in with city staffers or the mayor about issues Fennessy works on at all. (Whether Moseley’s boss should be granting his wife six-figure, no-bid contracts is another question altogether.)

The ultimate fate of the streetcar remains a somewhat open question. The total funding gap identified in the report is $88 million—$23 million for utility work that would likely have to be done anyway, and a $65 million hole in SDOT’s budget for the project that resulted from factors the mayor’s office says the department failed to consider, including the need for a new maintenance barn to accommodate longer trains, funding to strengthen bridges in Pioneer Square, and modifications to the train platforms and tracks.

In her letter transmitting the new cost estimates to the city council, Durkan placed the blame for these cost increases squarely on former mayor Ed Murray’s administration and the previous management at SDOT, writing, “It is clear now that the previous SDOT management in the last administration had failed to do the proper due diligence to account for all the costs. As a result, this project was not set up for future long term financial success, including with the Federal Transit Administration (which does its own separate review of the project).” The city is counting on a $75 million Small Starts grant from the FTA to complete the project. The additional review, Durkan’s office says, will push the streetcar’s opening date out to 2025—five years later than the original 2020 projection.

Beyond that, SDOT faces an ongoing operating deficit—or, if you prefer, it requires an ongoing operating subsidy. During last year’s budget discussions, Durkan announced she was ending the practice of backfilling revenue shortfalls for the South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars after the fact, and would instead include the subsidy in the budget at the beginning of the year. According to the Parsons report, that ongoing subsidy will grow from $4.17 million next year to $6.14 million in 2020, when a $1 million annual subsidy from King County Metro runs out, and grow steadily until it jumps again, to $12.8 million, in 2024, when a similar $5 million annual subsidy from Sound Transit runs its course. The renewal of either of these two subsidies would reduce the cost to the city.

As for the Seattle Streetcar Coalition: They were, in the words of one coalition member, “thrilled” by today’s announcement. In a press release, the coalition “commend[ed] Mayor Jenny Durkan for her leadership on transportation and her commitment to delivering the critical next piece of Seattle’s streetcar system.”

In Another Blow to Downtown Streetcar, New Cost Estimate Adds Another $55 Million In Overruns

The proposed downtown Seattle streetcar, which has been plagued by cost overruns, the potential loss of $75 million in anticipated federal funds, and news that the streetcars the city ordered are 10 feet longer than the existing vehicles, will now cost as much as $252 million, according to a new report from outside consultant KPMG—an increase of $55 million from the previous estimate of $197 million. (The $197 million figure, released in May, was already $37 million higher than the original estimate of $167 million for the 15-block line connecting the existing South Lake Union and First Hill streetcars.)

Mayor Jenny Durkan did not say Friday whether she planned to terminate the streetcar project, although the report makes that outcome appear much more likely. Last week, the Seattle Times reported that Durkan had hired Anne Fennessy, a longtime friend of the mayor’s who lives on the streetcar route with her husband, Durkan’s deputy mayor David Moseley, to oversee the streetcar review. Fennessy’s firm, Cocker Fennessy, is a public relations firm, not an engineering company.

The cost increase, according to today’s report, is being driven primarily by the escalating cost of construction materials and labor, higher costs for utility work, much of which will be  necessary with or without the streetcar; and extra contingency funding “to account for risks such as SDOT civil and facility costs to accommodate new CAF vehicles.”

Last month, Durkan announced that the new streetcar vehicles the city ordered under the previous mayoral administration were longer 10 feet longer than the existing streetcars, which the city says could necessitate alterations to the existing streetcar maintenance barn and changes to the route and existing tracks themselves, to accommodate the wider turning radius of the longer cars. These apparent engineering errors, along with the earlier cost overruns, prompted Durkan’s decision to put the streetcar “on pause” in late March, and to order the independent review.

In addition, according to the report, the city has outstanding debts totaling $17.9 million for the existing First Hill and South Lake Union streetcar lines, which the city has considered paying off with funds from the sale of city property.

The report projects that the current plan could result in an operating deficit of up to $9.9 million a year if ridership is low and external funding from other (non-city) sources, including Sound Transit ($5 million), the Federal Transportation Administration ($430,000) and ads and sponsorships ($980,000) all fails to come through. If ridership is high and all the anticipated external funding does come through, the system could have as much as a $1.9 million annual operating surplus. The report also presents a scenario where the streetcar would run less frequently during off-peak hours (the current proposal assumes it would arrive at stations every 15 minutes for most of the day, and every 10 minutes at rush hour); under that scenario, the streetcar could see an annual surplus of up to $2.7 million with all the external funding, or an annual deficit of up to $4.7 million without it.

The streetcar plan assumes that the Federal Transportation Administration will come through with a $75 million grant; however, the city has not signed an agreement for that funding and the Trump Administration has shown a persistent reluctance to fund transit projects in cities. The administration has already withheld funding for $1.4 billion for shovel-ready transit projects—like the extension of Sound Transit’s Link light rail to Lynnwood—for which federal agreements have been signed, so the $75 million in streetcar funding is far from a done deal.

The report does include a couple of bright spots for streetcar supporters. First, the report estimates that the streetcar will cost between $16.6 million and $19.6 million a year to operate—lower than King County Metro’s estimate of $24 million a year. Second, the report predicts that building the downtown streetcar connector will boost ridership significantly by 2026, to almost four times what it would be on just the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcars combined if the downtown streetcar does not open.

Ridership on both existing streetcar lines has consistently fallen short of estimates. Proponents of the downtown streetcar have argued that linking the two lines with a  downtown connector in dedicated right-of-way, separated from auto traffic, will dramatically boost sagging ridership as people choose the streetcar over buses to travel through an increasingly congested downtown core. They also say that a continuous loop connecting First Hill, South Lake Union, and downtown will create a convenient, predictable one-seat route between those destinations.

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If Durkan decides to kill the streetcar, the utility work currently underway on First Avenue downtown will continue. The report estimates that that work would account for about $16.5 million of the $55 million cost estimate for the “no build” option, $31 million of which has already been spent. The remainder of that figure would come largely from spending that has already occurred, including design work ($17.3 million), vehicles ($5.8 million) and construction ($8.7 million, although that includes some work SDOT would have to do anyway because of the ongoing utility work, according to the report.)

The report says that if the city decides to move forward with the project, it should immediately start engineering work to figure out how to integrate the new, longer vehicles into the existing system, coordinate with the federal government to start the additional reviews the FTA has said will be needed “to confirm that the Project can continue with the changes” in order for the city to receive a full funding grant agreement for the $75 million in federal funding, and ask the city’s attorneys to weigh in on any liability the city may incur by either restarting or terminating the streetcar project.

Read KPMG’s 23-page summary of its report here. 

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

KCSC_decision

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.”

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